from the Church History

God’s Ways and Means

There was one man in all Ireland whom Patrick dearly wanted to see – Milcho, his old master. But the Ulster chief, half in fear, half in rage at the return of his runaway slave, gathered his treasures in his house, set it on fire, and perished in the flames. The apostle, seeing the blaze from afar, paused in his journey, and after three hours of silence and prayer exclaimed, “That is the fire of Milcho’s house, after his burning himself in the middle of the house, that he might not believe in God in the end of his life.”[3] We can be sure that this event left a deep impress on the people, high and low; it was the first dread stroke of the Almighty so visible in the Christian invasion. Inspired, Patrick made a bold move which was to win the day for his Divine Master. By direct challenge he carried the fight to the enemy, meeting them, so to speak, in spiritual combat. Only by such an attack can the evil influence of the Druids be destroyed. Only in this way can the chiefs and their clans make sure that he is a man sent of God. Yes, aided by Heaven he will uphold the faith before all men. The Easter pagan festival of the year 433 was at hand when the Ambassador of Christ, having spent all of Lent in prayer and fasting, made ready for the attack. Leaving Slane, be proceeded to Tara hill, and in plain sight of the royal palace lit the Easter fire. Now the Ard Righ had long since given command that Patrick be driven from the island. And lo! here at his doorstep was the despised apostle defying his authority and the Druid law. Did not this brazen stranger know that death was the penalty for anyone who dared blow a spark on Easter–eve before the priests lit their ritual fire?

Ireland never forgot that fire on Tara’s hill. It was plainly kindled by. Patrick to praise and glorify the Risen Savior- the Light of the World. For the first time the true Easter light shone in the darkness of northern paganism, but the darkness did not as yet comprehend it! The impact of Patrick’s deeply religious act, however, was immediate, and startling. On seeing the embers glow from his palace window, Laeghaire mounted his chariot, determined to put the offender to death. “Nay! nay!” the Druid priests cautioned him. “Stay away from that fire and send at once for the law–breaker.” This Laeghaire did, and Patrick approached his sworn foes unfearingly: “They were before him, and the rims of their shields against their chins, and none of them rose up before him (i.e., to welcome him) except one man alone, Erc, son of Daga. . . Patrick blessed him, and he believed in God.” Directly the cunning Druids challenged Patrick, using the most subtle of their black arts. A display of rival powers followed in which the old apostle by divinely shaped strategy exposed the tricks of the magicians and laid low their most powerful priest, Luchru. This thing was against all reason, all calculation, and the infuriated Druids incited their chiefs to do away with the Christian newcomer. They were foiled, however, when a terrific tempest broke upon the milling crowd, darkness prevailed and in a panic of fear the pagans slew each other. To all of them the meaning of such a visitation must have been unmistakable. The Lord had clothed Patrick’s enemies with confusion, while His sanctification had flourished upon the faithful missionary.

Light and Darkness

The following day, Easter Sunday, the apostle appeared again at Tara, much to the Ard Righ’s astonishment. A new power, hostile to Irish ways of life, had come into their midst, an influence which must be secretly disposed of at once. So they tried to poison the enemy, but failed -when he blessed the proffered goblet, and the poison fell out in the sight of all. That, one might suppose, would be enough for the plotters, but such was far from the case. Though they had faltered and failed, yet there was a last chance. The Celts, be it said, love a trial of strength, not so much for the sake of victory as for the sake of the combat itself, the power of endurance. They proposed with crafty guile that the Saint match wonders with them before the King and his court. Again, after using every trick in their bag, they were badly worsted. With the boldness of his own fearless faith Patrick then proposed – an ordeal by fire! In a fiercely blazing structure of faggots and green wood the Druid Luchat Mae! met his death while Benignus, Patrick’s beloved assistant, escaped unscathed. Losing no time, the apostle preached to the astounded onlookers, teaching them about the Holy Trinity and making the mystery clear in the simple form in which it is written in the shamrock’s triple leaf. The Queen, wonderful to say, embraced the true faith, many of the court followed her brave step, and that Easter day at Tara became known ever after as the birthday of Christian Ireland.

Up to this time, the missionary’s holy hands had been quite tied; but now in 433, with Laeghaire’s permission to preach, he converted the Ard Righ’s brother, Conall, together with the famous bard, Dubtach. You see him presently on his way to the west where for seven years he evangelized Connaught. By 440 he was back in Ulster, sowing the good seed far and wide, founding the Church of Armagh. Next the province of Leinster was visited; though once rejected there the saint met with a hearty reception and received many into the true fold. From Leinster he moved on into Munster where among others the formidable Aengus, son of the King, was baptized. We are apt to think that the way was easy for Patrick, the work effortless. Far from it; for while there is no record of martyrdom on Irish soil in those first days, none the less such conquests of the faith brought tears and trials; more than once Patrick’s life was imperilled, seven times he and his companions were imprisoned. But the acknowledged holiness and eloquence of the great apostle could not be denied and it became increasingly clear that the future of Ireland lay in his hands. Old men, chiefs and clansmen, the bravest of. the brave laid down their arms and quietly submitted to being instructed in the truths of the Captain of Salvation. In a little while the Druid snakes in the grass fled seaward; their black magic disappeared with them as mysteriously as the ebbing tide on Erin’s shores. And less than a decade after his arrival, the apostle and his beloved Benignus stood side by side with the Ard Righ Laeghaire, his chiefs, bards and brehons, in a great council of the nation, gathered for the purpose of remodelling the laws of Ireland on a Christian basis.

Never was there such a peaceful Christian penetration as that effected by this extraordinary missioner. Who can ex plain the resurrection of Erin from darkness to light? How, one may ask, could this miracle have been achieved? Well, to begin with, Patrick’s insight was glowing, incandescent in charity; his approach was friendly and straightforward, intelligent and understanding. With unfailing judgment he accepted both Scots and Tuatha de Danann, appraising their laws and literature at their true worth. Then, aided by God, be diligently sowed the seeds of faith in their eager hearts, “working from above and not from below.” His method was to win their leaders first – chiefs, bards and brehons, upon whom he later conferred spiritual authority over the rank and file. No coercion, no conversions at the point of the sword, but an inspired and inspiring appeal to a people gifted with natural faith. In that natural faith of the Irish you have another clue to the mystery of their rapid conversion. The Celts are a race who believe themselves to be strangers from another country, dwelling half on this earth, half in a land of mystery. They regard the whole world with wonderment; earth, air and sea effect a mysterious but powerful influence upon them. Now all this proved divinely opportune and Patrick was quick to profit by the traits of the folk he knew and loved so well. Once his hearers grasped the nature of his power they responded readily to “the truth that is in Christ Jesus.” An ardent people, their souls went out to greet the Friend of publicans and sinners; inured to suffering, they fell in love with the Man of Sorrows; used to do homage to sacrifice, they could clearly glimpse Calvary. For the rest, the Easter fire with its sublime message brought the Light of Life into their poor dark hearts. Never a day but great crowds pressed upon the inspired preacher to hear the Word of God. Enthusiastically they accepted the faith, energetically they professed it, and the tragedy of human passion in their hearts was replaced by the triumph of love of God and of neighbor. If. you look at these facts you will understand how paganism quickly disappeared from Erin, root and branch, while in its place Christianity flowered, exhaling its sweetest fragrance.

The Dying Empire

Ireland, cloistered by the northern ocean, continued to yield the fruits of the faith, but alas! it was another story and a sad one throughout the Empire. Hun, Goth, and Vandal, had fixed their covetous eyes on Christian lands. It was only a short time before they came, saw, conquered, leaving smoking ruins in their path. Only the Rock of Peter was strong enough to withstand these inexhaustible barbarian waves. Pope Innocent (401-417), who felt their impact when the Goths sacked Rome, was alive to the great responsibility of the papacy’s winning them to the cause of Christ. And Pope Celestine (422-432), who had sent Patrick to Ireland, aghast at the havoc wrought on every side, died after a tempest–tossed decade which saw much distress within and without the Church. He could not have dreamed that Patrick’s going was in reality the first step in the divine solution of the hopeless barbarian question. In 439 his successor, Sixtus III, despatched three bishops to aid the apostle in spreading the Gospel, and this in the face of increasing difficulties surrounding the Western Church. The wars and campaigns of a wobbly Empire plus the disrupting schisms and heresies of the hour demanded a giant in the Chair of Peter. Leo the Great (440-461) was the one God chose for the tremendous task of preserving unity through faith. An able scholar, incredible diplomatist, and fearless champion, be kept the Church strong amid dire perils; indeed, his reign ranks second only in importance to that of Gregory I. Patrick is said to have visited Pope Leo in the year 442, receiving his approval of the faith in Ireland. What a contrast the Vicar of

Christ and his missionary must have observed between the peace of God settling over Erin and the divine wrath visited on the Empire which had so wickedly persecuted the early Christians. In 451 Attila, the Hun, having ravaged northern Italy led his ruthless barbarians to the very gates of Rome where Leo prevailed upon him to return to the East. The black cloud had scarcely vanished when the Vandals under Genseric crossed over from Africa, besieged Rome from the Tiber and sacked the City. Though they spared the great buildings, thousands were carried off to slavery. After two decades of magnificently consistent rule the great Pope was succeeded by Hilary whose task as Supreme Pastor was to pave the way for peace with the victorious barbarians.

The glory that was Rome came to an end in 476 when Odoacer, the Goth, was hailed King of Italy. Any thought of destroying the Empire itself did not occur to the barbarian leader who venerated the old ideals and institutions even when he was invading territories. Half a century earlier Alaric’s successor, Adoiphus, had played nobly the part of a Roman general, married the Emperor’s sister, adopted the Roman dress; be even opposed the fiercer barbarians who rode roughshod in Spain. Goths, after all, were of a decent nature, quite unlike either Huns or Vandals, so their barbarism eventually disappeared; and Gothic chiefs like Alaric, Adolphus and Odoacer professed Christianity of a sort, but all of them were Arians who wanted no truck with the Pope of Rome. It was clear to the barbarians that the Empire of the West was now done for, so the title of Emperor went to the East where ruler after ruler proved more unreal and less potent in their sway. New trials burdened the papacy when in 489 Theodoric attacked King Odoacer, murdered him in cold blood, and conquered Italy, giving one–third of the land to his Ostrogoth soldiers and taking over Ravenna for his court city. Nor were conditions any better in the Eastern Church. At Antioch and Constantinople there was riotous disorder, brought about by mischief–makers who brazenly supported Basilicus, the schismatic bishop. But with the restoration of Zeno, the Emperor, came a change for the better; he straightway sent to Pope Felix II a confession of faith and a vow to support orthodoxy. Another promising event towards the century–end, was the baptism of Clovis and his Franks. The warlike leader had married a Christian saint, Clotilda, but stubbornly resisted all her sincere efforts to convert him. However, be made a vow that if the Alemannj met defeat at his hands, the God of the Christians would be his God. Having won the victory, Clovis with 3000 of his warriors received Baptism on Christmas day, 496; then he proceeded at Bishop Remigius command “to adore what he had burnt, and to burn what he had adored.” As the battle–scarred chief passed through the ranks of holy monks he addressed the old saint – “Sir, is this heaven already?” “No,” was Remegius ready reply, “but it is the road thereto.” Alas, many a decade would pass before the war–weary West would find that road and embrace its true Master as He was already known and loved in that little island far to the north.

In God’s Green Garden

Beyond the broken Empire Patrick lived on in holiness and justice till the year 492. He had long since retired from the government of the See of Armagh and had consecrated three hundred and fifty bishops, besides visiting all the churches, monasteries and convents. The evening of his life was spent in prayer and penance, enriching the Gospel he had preached, edifying all with the holy thoughts of old age. Had not God Who vouchsafed to send Patrick to Ireland, enabled him to accomplish all that he was commanded to do? Truly then he could never thank the Heavenly Father enough for granting his heart’s desire; for confirming his teachings by so many signs and miracles. Every Lent the old Bishop was wont to go up to Crough–Patrick, Ireland’s Mount Sinai, and plead with the Most High that his cherished people never deviate from their faith. How could they do other than obey the teachings of this man, so love–enlightened, who shed holiness everywhere like dew on the fleece? With true Celtic sweet ness the ancient chronicle voices their affection when it speaks of Patrick as “a fair flower garden to children of grace; a flaming fire; a lion in strength, and power; a dove in gentleness and humility.” A wonderful God–conscious life had assuredly been his, even from childhood. And what a unique rosary of golden years he could count! Over half a sorrowful decade spent in exile among the Scots, four hopeful decades in pilgrim preparation, six glorious decades as an apostle among people dear to his heart. All that remained now was to wait in divine patience for the hour when the Great Husbandman should summon him to an accounting of his unfailing steward ship. Near the threshold of eternity, the apostle, surrounded by holy monks and nuns, asked to be anointed by one of his own bishops. He reached journey’s end on March 17, 492, in his monastery at Saul, and passed into that higher life, which is a life of peace.

The work of Patrick, great as it was in his lifetime, had scarcely begun. It would be continued by his devoted disciples for centuries to come. Indeed, a litany could be written of the saint’s children in Christ: saints, scholars, missioners, at home and abroad. St. Benignus in Erin, St. Ciaran at Ard Typrait, St. Enda at Arran (480), St. Columba at Iona (521-579), St. Finnian at Clonard (530), St. Kevin at Glendalough (about 544), St. Comgall at Bangor (552), St. Brendan of Clonfert, St. Columban in Burgundy and Lombardy (d. 633), St. Carthach at Lismore (635) and St. Cataldus (640). This list might be greatly enlarged nor can we omit the names of St. Mochta at Lougth, and above all, St. Brigid, the most remarkable Irish woman of the fifth century. The daughter of Dubhthach, a Leinster chief tam, Brigid proved so loyal a friend and co–worker of Patrick that the two were said to have but one heart and one mind. Her nunnery in Kildare, the Church of the Oaks, became center from which radiated houses of piety, and learning throughout all Ireland. Young beautiful girls by the hundreds, daughters of warriors, princesses of noble birth, entered the religious life and vowed to serve Christ all their days. You can easily imagine how they must have sunned God green garden and enriched its growth with the Gospel of peace and love. “There was no desert,” the Acts of the Martyr affirm, “no spot, no hiding place in the island, however remote which was not peopled with perfect monks and nuns.”[4] These were the heralds of a new dawn who would carry the torch of learning to illumine the Dark Ages. Already in this westernmost isle of the seas, hermits could be seen leaving their cells, gathering about them eager novices into monastic colonies. Great schools arose- Clonard, Moville, Glass nevin, Clonmacoise – where monks from overseas sough direction from able masters who taught the sacred scripture and the practice of ascetism. Spain, Gaul, Italy, all looked to Ireland as a spiritual power–house to assist in the rebuilding of Christendom. And presently, as Newman writes, “Man: holy and learned Irishmen left their own country to proclaim the faith, to establish or to reform monasteries in distant lands, and thus to become the benefactors of almost every nation in Europe.”[5]

[1] Confessions, C. IV, Par. 15
[2] Book of Armagh, fol. II
[3] Tripartite Life, p. 383
[4] Acts of the Martyrs
[5] Hist. Sketches, vol.  III, p. 126