Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
What do we really know about St. Patrick? His background is shrouded in mystery. What we have heard often mingles myth with reality. To separate fact from fiction we need a closer look. We need to ask the real St. Patrick to please stand up.
In the fifth century A.D. an adolescent boy in Britain was kidnapped and enslaved by marauders from a nearby country. The youngster they captured eventually eluded his captors in Ireland, but several years later returned as a priest with the conviction that God had chosen him to convert that country to Christianity. That young Briton named Patricius died an Irishman named Patrick. Ireland and Christianity have not been the same since. Meet the authentic St. Patrick.
Fact over Myth
His life was clouded by legend, but peeling away the myth we discover that what is factually known about St. Patrick is far more interesting. He never chased the snakes out of Ireland, nor do we have any certainty that he used the shamrock to teach the Trinity to his converts.
History possesses no written records about Britain or Ireland from the fifth century except those few about Patrick. Quite simply Ireland had no written records prior to Patrick.
The sequence of his life is not clear, and historians cannot identify when he was born, ordained a bishop, or died. But scholars agree that the two extant examples of his writing are clearly the work of the same man we today call Patrick.
The two brief compositions of Patrick, his Confession and his Letter to Coroticus, are the sources of all we know for certain about the historical Patrick.
The Confession, not really a biography, recounts his call to convert the Irish and aims to justify his mission to an unsympathetic people in Britain.
The Letter to Coroticus, an Irish warlord whom Patrick excommunicated, illustrates his power as a preacher, but yields little biographical information.
In a nutshell these are the biographical facts. Patrick was born Patricius in Roman Britain to a Christian family of some wealth. He was not religious in his youth, and claims he was close to renouncing his family’s faith. Kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave for a warlord, he worked as a shepherd for six years and then escaped. At home he began studies for the priesthood with the intent to return as a missionary to his former captors. Clearly he had committed his life to Ireland until death. By the time he had written the Confession, Patrick was recognized as bishop of Ireland by both the natives of Ireland and by Church authorities on the continent.
Two traits are patently evident in Patrick’s Confession: his humility and his strength. These characteristics are missing in early biographies and in the legends.
The missionary Patrick who returned to Ireland was a strong and vigorous personality. He was tough and determined. He had to be to pursue the vision that launched him in the evangelization of the pagan island. He was not the least bit reluctant to undertake this mission despite the fact that in 400 years no one had taken the Gospel beyond the bounds of Roman civilization. As each obstacle was encountered, Patrick mustered the strength to overcome it.
With limited education -- he was chiefly self-educated -- but with the grace of the experience of his enslaved exile, Patrick determined to do what no other had done in the previous four centuries of Christian history. He decided to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and he planned wisely a way to do it. Unaided he figured out how to carry Christian values to the barbarians who practiced human sacrifice, who constantly warred with each other, and who were noted slave traders. That was neither simple nor easy to attempt. Most likely he hazarded this challenge of evangelization never before undertaken by the missionaries of the Greco-Roman world because the Christians of the continent did not consider barbarians to be human.