Ireland, which never had the knowledge of God, but up till now always adored idols and things unclean — how are they now made a people of the Lord, and are called children of God? The sons of the Scots and the daughters of their chieftains are seen to become monks and virgins of Christ.—St. Patrick
Our family wears green on St. Patrick’s Day or else we answer to the lady of the house. Her March 17 excesses have included making perfectly good food unpalatable with green dye. Sometimes I think my dear Irish wife’s blood must run emerald.
I wonder what Patrick himself would make of the shenanigans that mark his feast day in the United States. Would he be comfortable with the festivities of his annual commemoration? Would he wear a shamrock? wield a shillelagh? dance a jig? recite limericks? eat green food and drink green beer?
I will not say that Patrick would not enjoy all that hoopla. After all, historians call him the first true Irishman. So we can expect that, like his compatriots, he knew how to celebrate. Perhaps, however, Patrick would like to see us enhance his day of remembrance with some specifically Christian customs, as many do in Ireland. Like taking time out to pray or to study the Bible or to share a word of faith with a neighbor. For prayer, study and evangelism were the real hallmarks of his life.
Patrick first came to Ireland as a slave in 405, when raiders tore him and many others from their homes in Roman Britain. For six years, near a mountain in northern Ireland, Patrick herded swine for his pagan master. In his Confession, he says that his bondage was a time of spiritual strengthening. “My love and fear of God,” he said, “increased greatly, and my faith grew and my spirit was stirred up.” He spent his days and his nights praying. “Before dawn, in snow and frost and rain, I used to be aroused to prayer,” he recalled. “Nor was there any tepidity in me, such as I now feel, because then the spirit was fervent within me.”
One night Patrick heard a heavenly voice in his dreams that revealed he would soon return to his homeland. Later on, the voice spoke of a ship 200 miles away that would carry him to Britain. Patrick fled from his master and walked the long distance to the boat. When he arrived, the captain at first refused to take him. After Patrick prayed, however, the captain reconsidered and gave him passage.
The ship reached shore in three days. Then Patrick and the sailors trekked for a month through rough terrain. When their food ran out, the shipmaster challenged him to pray to his God for help. “Turn earnestly,” said Patrick, “and with all your hearts to the Lord my God, to who nothing is impossible.” Just then a herd of swine appeared on the road, and the pigs soon became a hearty barbecue. Until Patrick left the seamen a month later, they did not lack for food or anything else.
Patrick was about 22 years old when he rejoined his family. They welcomed him warmly, hoping he would never again leave them. But that was not to be. He soon received dreams that urged him to return to Ireland. “I heard,” he wrote “the voices of those who dwelt beside the wood of Focluth, which is by the western sea. And thus they cried, as if with one mouth: ‘We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us.’” Patrick understood that God was calling him to take the gospel to Ireland. In fact, to become the apostle of Ireland.
Patrick went to France, where he worked for 21 years preparing for his mission. Establishing the Christian Church in Ireland would require many things. He would have to be ready to proclaim the Good News to a pagan people. He would have to be able to provide for the Christian formation and care of his converts. Wherever he founded communities, he would need to recruit and train a native clergy and build and equip churches. Above all, he would have to possess the strength and savvy to overcome the resistance of the druids, the priests who used magic to dominate the Irish.
For three years Patrick devoted himself to acquiring spiritual disciplines and practical skills at the monastery of Lerins. Then he spent fifteen more at Auxerre, where the great monk and bishop St. Germanus was his mentor. Patrick’s training prepared him to be a church planter, not a scholar. Later he keenly felt his lack of education and often bemoaned it. However, he knew that for his task he needed pastoral wisdom more than scholarship. During this time Patrick was ordained a deacon and a priest. Ireland’s first bishop, St. Palladius, died in 431 after only one year of service. Patrick succeeded him as bishop and launched his divinely appointed enterprise in 432.
The pivotal event in St. Patrick’s ministry occurred in the spring of 433. He was determined to win the support of High King Laoghaire, the powerful ruler of central Ireland, whose blessing would open doors for him everywhere. His resolve to gain the king’s support precipitated a dramatic confrontation with leading druids. Patrick’s triumph over them in a contest of spiritual power versus magic secured the success of his mission at its outset.
It happened on the night before Easter. Laoghaire was celebrating a pagan festival at Tara, his base in central Ireland. By law no one in the land was permitted to kindle a fire until the ceremonial beacon of Royal Hill was lit. Miles away atop the Hill of Slane, Patrick had gathered his followers for the Easter Vigil. Unaware of the prohibition against fires, Patrick opened the liturgy by striking the new fire, the vivid symbol of Christ’s resurrection. Had he know of the prohibition, he probably would have ignored it anyway.
King Laoghaire, his barons and the druids saw Patrick’s paschal fire and were enraged. The druids, sensing imminent danger, warned the king that he must extinguish the fire immediately. If not, said one prophetically, “it will never be extinguished in Ireland. Moreover, it will outshine all the fires we light. And he who has kindled it will conquer us all.” So the king and eight chariots full of warriors headed for Patrick’s camp.
Upon arrival the king summoned Patrick and demanded an explanation. Patrick responded with a simple summary of the gospel. When Drochu, a leading druid, made fun of Christian mysteries, Patrick prayed aloud that he be punished. With that, Drochu was swooped high into the air and dropped to his death. The warriors then attempted to capture Patrick, but he prayed they would be scattered. A dark cloud and a whirlwind descended on them, causing a panic in which many perished.
The king cowered at this demonstration of might. In his fright, he made a pretense of acknowledging God and invited Patrick to speak about the Christian faith to his barons at Tara. Then he left Slane, planning to lie in wait to ambush Patrick and his associates. When Patrick and his band passed by, however, they were invisible to Laoghaire and his would-be assassins. As the Christians escaped, they chanted for the first time the saint’s famous Breastplate. The prayer calls upon the power of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the angels, and all of heaven against every conceivable danger. In the following years, Patrick would pray it often.
On Easter Day, King Laoghaire held a banquet at Tar as part of the pagan religious festival. Patrick and five companions mystified the gathering by passing through locked doors and appearing in their midst. Invited to sit near the king, Patrick was then given a drink that Lucat-Mael, the chief druid, had laced with poison. Discerning the mischief, Patrick made a sign of the cross over the cup, and the beverage froze, except for the drop of poison. Everyone watched as Patrick poured it on the table. He blessed the cup again, and his drink returned to normal.
After his humiliation before his peers, Lucat-Mael sought to redeem himself. He challenged Patrick to a public contest of wonders on the plain of Tara, where many Irish could watch. Firs the druid is said to have magically filled the plain with waist-high snow.
“We see the snow,” said Patrick. “Now remove it.”
“I cannot until tomorrow,” said the druid.
“Then, you are powerful for evil, but not for good. Not so with me,” said Patrick. He stretched out his hands, once again carving a cross in the air. Instantly, the snow disappeared without a trace. The crowd cheered.
For his next magical stunt, the druid shrouded the plain in total darkness. Once again he was unable to reverse his trick until the next day. Patrick prayed and with a blessing dismissed the darkness. This time, the onlookers erupted with praise for Patrick’s God.
To settle the issue once and for all, Patrick proposed the third contest, a trial by fire. The druid, covered by Patrick’s cloak, would be locked in a hut made of freshly sawed wood. Benignus, Patrick’s young disciple, would be clothed in Lucat-Mael’s cloak and placed in a hut of dry wood. Then both huts would be burned to the ground. All accepted the terms, and with the two men in place, the huts were torched. This test had a marvelous outcome. Flames consumed the hut of new wood and the druid, but Patrick’s cloak was not even singed. Benignus and his hut remained untouched by the fire, but Lucat-Mael’s cloak was burned to ashes.
Patrick’s miraculous encounters with the druids were so spectacular that modern historians discount them as legends. But as extraordinary as the miracles were, the earliest documents reported them as facts. Patrick’s wonders set the stage for the conversion of Ireland. Why should he not have expected divine interventions at such significant moments in his missionary venture?
Even though Patrick had exposed the emptiness of Laoghaire’s religion, the ruler did not become a Christian. He made two decisions, however, that significantly advanced Patrick’s work. He gave Patrick permission to preach the gospel in Ireland, and he ensured Patrick’s personal safety.
From that time, Patrick crisscrossed the island, making disciples everywhere he went. In a relatively short time, he baptized tens of thousands of converts and built hundreds of churches, staffing them with Irish priests and deacons. He founded many monasteries and schools to care for the passionate youths who decided to follow him to Christ. In 444, scarcely a dozen years after Patrick arrived, he established Ireland’s first cathedral church at Armagh, which quickly became a center of Christian education and church administration.
By the time of Patrick’s death around 461, he had completely dislodged the ancient paganism. The whole island had become thoroughly and permanently Christian. Now that’s a miracle I challenge anyone to dismiss.
Christ Is All in All
Christ is with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.
Christ is the head of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
—St. Patrick’s Breastplate
Bert Ghezzi is a popular author and speaker. His most recent book is The Power of Daily Mass: How Frequent Participation in the Eucharist Can Transform Your Life. This article is an excerpt fromMystics and Miracles: True Stories of Lives Touched by Godby Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2002), and is reprinted here with kind permission.