from the Church History

The Triumph of Failure

At this time the pilgrim, nearly sixty, was still strong despite long journeys through the disregarded years. “The dignity of his age and the inbred honor of his grey head” were as naught compared with his burning desire to evangelize Erin. As he set out on the difficult journey Romeward, it must have seemed like a second spring, or a St. Martin’s summer, so high were his hopes. Over the Alps he hastened, exerting himself mightily along the imperial highway until he reached the Eternal City. “0. Lord Jesus Christ,” he prayed, “lead me, I beseech Thee, to the chair of the Holy Roman Church, that receiving authority there to preach with confidence Thy sacred Truths, the Irish nation, by my ministry, may be gathered to the fold of Christ.” Now no one knew better than Patrick that the Roman pontiffs carried out the divine commission to feed the lambs and. the sheep. No doubt he could have named countless missionaries despatched from Rome to labor in Europe, Asia and Africa. On arriving at Vatican hill therefore he lost no time in following out Germanus instruction. Pope Celestine, whom Patrick sought out, occupied the Chair of Peter in the balesome presence of heretic and barbarian. The troublesome Nestorius, finally unmasked at the Council of Ephesus, still exerted great power, and the barbarian invasion continued, yet Celestine, a truly great pontiff, ruled firmly and successfully. Though weighed down with the heaviest of cares he had managed to send a missionary, Palladius, to Ireland. That happened just a year before Patrick reached Rome; and as a result the old pilgrim’s appeal fell on deaf ears, in fact the Pope paid no heed to him at all.

End of the Road

In trial, it is said, men act well or ill according to their previous life which is then and there revealed by their conduct. Instead of giving up the idea of his mission, Patrick bided his time in faith and hope. A bare glimpse of his odyssey at this trying period is given in his own words: “I bad with me the fear of God, as the guide of my path through Gaul and Italy, as well as in the islands of the Mediterranean Sea.” Italy, observe, was overrun by barbarians, the islands pirate–infested, yet Patrick who describes himself as “a sinner untaught and most countrified,” travelled through them unafraid. In the meantime, Palladius had gone forth to convert the warlike Scots, only to meet with failure and the end of all mortal plans – “Ireland lay under the wintry cold; these fierce barbarians received not his doctrine readily, nor did he himself wish to remain long in a land not his own; wherefore he returned to him who sent him. On his way, however, after passing the first sea, having begun his land journey, he died in the land of the Picts.”[2]

The very next year Patrick–s heaven–inspired plan was realized. In the words of Holy Writ, “The eye of God looked upon him for good, and lifted him up from his low estate and exalted his head; and many have wondered at him and have glorified God Who prepared with him a covenant of peace and made him a prince.” The record of that belated triumph is very vague, there being less than a dozen words to throw light on the great event; but the truth of the matter can be re captured, and in all likelihood is as follows: At the foot of the Alps lies the town of Iurea, ancient Eborea, on the route from Ravenna to Gaul and Ireland. It was here Patrick learned the news of the death of Palladius; here too he was, quite certainly, consecrated in conspectu Celestini, in conspectu Germani.

The bishop who governed that region was St. Maximus, a fearless leader so kindred in spirit to Patrick that heaven used his holy hands to anoint the Apostle of Ireland. One gets a further glimpse of Maximus, strong as adamant, when Attila stormed down upon Italy. As spiritual ruler of Turin, fully aware of his apostolic duty, he heartened his panicky flock when news came that the Hun was not far off. “We see you,” he said, “fortifying the gates of the city; but it is the primary duty of strengthening the gates of justice which presses down upon you. . . for it avails nothing to defend the walls with bulwarks and at the same time provoke God by sin.” Turin, be it said, was one of the few cities of northern Italy which escaped the ravages of the scourge of God.

But enough of the scene (time, place and principals) of the victory of Patrick’s vocation. Behold now the newly consecrated bishop himself, armed with full authority, ready if need be to face martyrdom. Youth had passed, and middle age, but at long last the prisoner of hope is free to preach the glory of God to the Irish. All the failures, difficulties, oppositions foreseen and unforeseen, all the years of dream and delay are gone forever; the just man of God has his way, God’s way, in the end. Westward, through the Alpine passes he hastens, along the familiar Roman road to Auxerre where he finds his beloved patron, Germanus. What a meeting that must have been! Soon the pilgrim embarked on the most wonderful missionary career in the Dark Ages. Can you not fancy Patrick’s thoughts when from land’s end he looked out upon the dangered sea, straining towards the island of his destiny? No script exists to tell us of those grace–laden hours, but history was to prove his second arrival in Ireland an event of world–wide importance.

Gospel Paths in Ireland

The land of Patrick’s holy desire had been thrice–colonized; first by the Firboigs, next by Tuatha de Danann, then by the Scots whom the missionary found in power. Two races, conqueror and conquered, dwelt together side by side in spite of their marked difference. Those whom Patrick called “Sons of Scots” and “daughters of princes” were bold, honor able, daring and bountiful. High statured, with fair skin, golden or brown hair and blue eyes, they exhibited graces of mind and manners far above those they ruled. One of them, Conaire Mor the chief, is pictured as “tall, illustrious, with cheeks dazzling white, sparkling black pupils in blue eyes glancing, and curling yellow hair.” Another, Queen Meave, is described as a “beautiful, pale, long–faced woman, with long, flowing, golden yellow hair; upon her a crimson cloak, fashioned with a brooch of gold over her breast.” The other race, Tuatha de Danann, were dark–haired, dark–eyed, of medium stature – Dub, Dond, and Dorche, that is, black, brown and dark. These were regarded as “vengeful plunder ers and adepts in the black and terrible mysteries of Druid ism,” having for their priests wily men trained in magic as well as in forms and doctrines of ancient paganism. Each chief had his Druid, and every Druid commanded a guard of thirty warriors. Obviously Irish pagan priests formed a wealthy order, “accustomed” as Patrick describes their avarice, “to borrow money to be repaid in the life to come” Druidae pecuniam mutuo accipiebant in posteriore vita red dituri. Easy to see, too, how the Christian message would appeal far more effectively to the dominant race which did homage to courage than to this dark people benighted by evil doings and false teachers. The Scots, ever a hardy, war–bent people, served their local chiefs, elected from the royal family, under the rule of one king; the rest of the folk were divided into “base kins” and “free kins,” each territorial division having its king and judges. Their common law, called the Brebon law (unique in the West, and nowise related to Roman or Semitic law), consisted. of an amazing collection of statutes from which our modern law–makers could learn much to their profit. Nial of the Nine Hostages (379-405) reigned supreme when Patrick dwelt there as a slave; his nephew Dathi, who succeeded to power, met his death by lightning in the Alps when on his marauding way to Italy; just four years after Datbi’s death, Nial’s son, Laeghaire, had become Ard Righ, the all–powerful ruler.

Thirty–nine years had elapsed since Patrick had last seen Ireland. On his return, in 432, he possessed a double com mission, one direct from God, the other from the Vicar of Christ. Again he was an exile in this country, and yet be was no exile; rather a lover of Christ, one at home anywhere in God’s world. The Irish people certainly were not strangers, for no one knew better the way it was with them. Therefore to his holy task Patrick addressed himself, confident in the fact that the Celt wanted the truth. That hazards, miseries, delays lay ahead, meant nothing to a man of this saint’s moral strength. Was he not waging a holy war against fear and unfaith, greed and ignorance? There were foes aplenty – the Ard Righ, proud chiefs and their cynical Druids – ready to resist him to the teeth, but he had no doubt that the powers of evil would be uncovered. By some dark magic the Druids seem to have divined that the apostle came to chant their requiem; anyhow they warned the chiefs of the unwelcome visitor’s approach, even describing the old bishop saying Mass.

Adze–head (i.e., the tonsured one) will come with a crook–head–staff (crosier): in his house head–holed (chasuble) he will chant impiety from his table (altar) from the front (the eastern part) of his house all his household (attendants) will respond. So be it! Sobeit!

As Patrick reached shore, the land of Wicklow felt the tread of his sacred feet, but not for long. Nathi, a fierce chieftain, who had previously driven Palladius away at the request of an angry high–priest, tried the same thing on the newcomer. But the seasoned traveller had a cool, deep mind able to cope with a foe of any sort; he and his party quietly rembarked, sailed to the north and landed in Meath. Here he was joined by a native child, Benignus, who by the grace of God would stay always with the apostle and succeed him in the See of Armagh. The little group proceeded farther to the north, landing in Down where the Druids again got wind of the missionary’s coming. On seeing Patrick, the prince of the province, Dichu, disdaining to draw his sword, set his wolf–hound on the old man, but the great beast stopped in his tracks as rigid as a stone. And when the powerful chief, taken aback, raised his weapon to strike, sword–arm and blade became pinned to the air by some strange power. Fear grew in his soul, then faith lighted it, and he allowed the apostle to depart unharmed.