A friend sent me a flyer his employer had sent employees. Included in it was a description of “St. Patrick’s Day” intended for a diverse and, apparently an under-10, audience. “He is the patron saint of Ireland — he became a priest and taught the Irish about God — we parade and dance and sing — we decorate with shamrocks and green — there’s a legend about snakes.”
What could be written for non-Catholic or non-Irish audiences about reasons they might respect him as more than an Easter bunny? Here’s my attempt:
The Saint Patrick honored on March 17 was an early (5th century) defender of human rights.
He grew up in Roman Christian Britain. When he was a teenager, he was kidnapped by the pagan Irish and enslaved. (Think of the Japanese young people who were kidnapped by the North Koreans. Think of the FARC kidnappings.) He was a shepherd — isolated from other human beings, living alone without any schooling or conversation. After six years of this life, he walked two hundred miles and escaped across the sea to freedom.
What did he do with his freedom? He left home again — this time to study to become a priest.
And what did he do with his priesthood? He had a dream not unlike the Apostle Paul’s about a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9); the Irish were pleading for him to return. Based only on a call for help seen in a dream, he courageously went by himself, without the protection of a chieftain, to the land whose people saw him as a fugitive slave.
Patrick did not speak the Irish language. He preached in Latin. (Fortunately, he found an interpreter.) Furthermore, Patrick had a very limited knowledge of these people — their customs, folk religion, folklore, kinship structure, political organization. Patrick knew sheep; he didn’t know the Irish. Nonetheless, Patrick met with some success — enough to return to Britain to seek consecration as a bishop so he could bestow the sacrament of confirmation, and even ordain, his converts.
The educated and urbane British bishops belittled him as an uneducated, uncultured rustic, and had not supported his mission to the ruffian, low-life Irish. When he returned to Britain, the bishops were embarrassed by his success and jealous of it. Without enthusiasm, they consecrated him.
Later, a group of British Christians raided Ireland and kidnapped and enslaved some Irish. Patrick responded, at risk to his life, by excommunicating these men. Since these men resided in Britain, outside Patrick’s jurisdiction, the British bishops were so upset with Patrick’s action that they compelled him to return to Britain to face bogus charges (unrelated to the excommunication).
Many people do not know that these facts are recounted in two short writings of St. Patrick that have survived. You can read them. They are his autobiography and his letter of excommunication.
Patrick returned to the land which had enslaved him to bring them the ultimate freedom. He was not timid — in the face of the pagan Irish, in the face of the British bishops, in the face of British Christian warriors. Despite his lack of language and other skills, he succeeded by the grace of God.
Patrick’s success in bringing the Christian Faith to the Irish people in the 5th century resulted in a boon to all humanity since, in the title of Thomas Cahill’s 1996 book, “the Irish saved civilization” — and not just Christian civilization.
This, then, is Saint Patrick — for adults.
We today have the same opportunity as Patrick and his spiritual sons and daughters, that of saving civilization — this time from the pagans elected throughout the West. We who are Christian inhabit lands that have become strange to us, and foreign to God. Our lands are filled with people described by St. Paul as the “enemies of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).
Let us bring change to our lands, true freedom to our lands. In the words of President Kennedy’s Inaugural, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, knowing that, here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
(Mr. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. lawyer. His article on Franz Jaegerstaetter, executed for refusal to serve in Hitler’s army, appears in the March issue of New Oxford Review.)