Yesterday was the Feast Day of St. Patrick. As many may know, St. Patrick – also known as the Apostle to the Irish or the Enlightener of Ireland – was the first Catholic religious leader to spread the Gospel to Ireland. As we celebrate the life of this great saint, let us first mediate upon certain implications of his life and his significance for our time.
Patrick was born A.D. 387. The exact place of his birth is, to a certain extent, shrouded in mystery. St. Fiacc, an early Irish bishop and contemporary of St. Patrick, identified St. Patrick’s place of birth as the village of Alcuith, in what is now Dumbarton (in northern Scotland). In his autobiography, St. Patrick claims that his father owned a villa in Bonavem Taberniae, and it was there that he spent most of his early life. This was located, according to some scholars, within a larger community known as Nemthur, one of many communities established in northern Scotland by Roman settlers in the British Isles. It is uncertain whether Patrick was born there, but it is possible.
His father, Calphurnius, was a Roman noble given authority over the Roman provinces in France and the British Isles. His mother, Conchessa, was a native of Gaul (modern-day France), and was closely related to St. Martin of Tours. When he was 16 years old, he was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. He worked as a shepherd for a local tribal leader in the hills of what is now County Antrim in northeastern Ireland (in what is now Northern Ireland). Even though Patrick came from a Christian home and was raised as a Christian, it was during his time in slavery that his faith deepened. It was also during this time that he eventually learned the Celtic language and culture (which would later aid him in his missionary activity).
At the age of 22, after six years of slavery, he ran away from his masters estate, and eventually sneaked aboard a ship headed for Scotland. After returning home, he vowed to serve the Church, and eventually resettled in France, where he entered into St. Martin’s monastery in Lérins (located off the southern coast of France) and took monastic vows. While in the monastery, Patrick threw himself into prayer and study. He was involved in the debates surrounding the Pelagian heresy – during which Patrick was sent to England, the birthplace of Pelagianism, to defend the orthodox position that man’s salvation is utterly dependent on the grace of God – and was even involved in missionary activity, taking part in missions to the Morini people (a tribe living in Northern France). It was during this time that many miracles occurred in association with St. Patrick.
Eventually, Pope Celestine I ordered St. Patrick to return to the British Isles, more specifically to Ireland, in order to convert the pagans of that area. Earlier missionaries had been sent to Ireland to do so, but were met with much resistance. St. Germain, bishop of the French town of Auxerre, recommended Patrick to Pope Celestine as the man for the job, as someone who spoke in Celtic and was familiar with Irish culture and religion. Patrick was sent to Rome to meet with Celestine, who, after conducting an investigation of Patrick, eventually approved of him as the missionary to the Irish. While leaving Italy, St. Patrick spent a brief period in Turin, where he was consecrated a bishop by St. Maximus, the bishop of Turin.
Patrick set sail for Ireland around A.D. 433, when he was in his mid 40’s, and upon arriving in Ireland, he began to preach to the locals. Between his preaching and the miracles associated with his ministry, Patrick gained many converts, including a local chieftain, who gave to Patrick a former barn to be converted into a church and later a monastery. It was there that the first Holy Mass was offered on Irish soil.
That Easter was the date of a meeting in the Irish town of Tara, in which local chieftains met with the Ard-Righ, one of the highest ranking tribal leaders in Ireland, and roughly equivalent to the title of emperor. Patrick wanted to attend the meeting, seeing it as a good opportunity to evangelize the leaders of the people. In the period leading up to the meeting, the leaders decreed that all fires be put out until the end of the meeting. On the night before the meeting, when Patrick was staying just outside of Tara, he celebrated an Easter Vigil Mass. During the Easter Vigil Mass – the Mass said by Catholics on the night before Easter – it is customary to light a fire to represent the glories of Christ’s resurrection. When the Druids (pagan Celtic priests) saw Patrick light this fire, they were angered, and attempted to put it out and have Patrick arrested. Yet, their attempts failed, and Patrick continued to celebrate the Easter Vigil Mass. The next day, St. Patrick led a procession near where the meeting was taking place. The Druids attempted to put an end to this by casting a spell upon Patrick, in which thick clouds covered the procession and rendered them incapable of seeing and thus moving around. To prove that this “curse” was an farce, St. Patrick dared the Druids to reverse the spell. When they failed to, Patrick attempted to prove the truthfulness of the Christian religion, and prayed that the clouds clear, and they did. Taking this as a miracle, many of the Druids scattered, and Patrick began to preach the faith to the locals. After gaining a large following in that area, Patrick then began to preach to the surrounding territories. In the following months and years, Patrick continued to convert the locals, establish places of worship, and consecrate bishops. Catholicism continued to spread throughout Ireland, in spite of resistance from the local Druids (though most of the anti-Christian activity was aimed at Patrick as an individual rather than the institutional Church, since, as Patrick notes in his autobiography, there were several attempts on the part of local pagan leaders to have him arrested or even killed). Patrick continued to preach until his death. The exact date death is unknown, with some sources saying he died in the middle of the A.D. 5th century, with other sources saying he lived to be a little over a hundred years of age, dying towards the tail end of the century. 
St. Patrick is today considered the patron saint of Ireland. And in many ways, the succeeding generations would keep alive his fervor, thus making the evangelization of Ireland an event that would change the face of Western Europe. P.F. Moran, writing for the New Catholic Encyclopedia, stated the conversion of Ireland had “the most far-reaching consequences for the spread of Christianity and civilization…”  A large reason for this was due to the prevalence of monasticism in Ireland. The Church historian and theologian Joseph Martos describes Christianity by the time of Patrick’s death as “thriving.” Monasticism quickly became dominant in Ireland, and as Martos notes, monasticism quickly became so dominant in Ireland that within a short time most of the clergy in that region were monks.  As the 20th century historian Christopher Dawson wrote in his work The Making of Europe, monasticism in Ireland was “all-important.”  In continental Europe, Africa and the Middle East, under the influence of the Romans and the various empires of the east, the notion of the city or village was the dominant community structure. Church structures were often centered around these pre-existent social structures, with the episcopal or patriarchal see being based out of the largest or most important city or village in a particular region. The bishop was the highest and most final authority there. Yet, in Ireland, society was predominately rural, and land was divided along tribal and familial lines, which also helped to determine the larger socio-political structures. Thus, large cities – and thus episcopal sees – were few and far between, and as a result individual places of worship, particularly in the form of monasteries, were the locus of the community, since these institutions often had close ties to the individuals that made up the local community. Thus, the overarching ecclesial structure was the same as in the rest of Europe, but in practice there was a major difference: since the monasteries were the centers of larger communities, both in a secular and religious sense, the monks often wielded the majority of the authority, and the bishop was, in a sense, merely the one who approved of an individuals entry into the monastery or ordained them as priests. 
The monks lived in accordance with a strict life centered on prayer, study and manual labor. The monks quickly gained a reputation for being learned men. Ireland, for example, being a culture with low literacy rates, had a rich network of oral traditions. In many ways, the Christian literature of Ireland built upon that. Nonetheless, the introduction of Latin and a whole new wave of Christian literature into Ireland no doubt increased the learning of Ireland, and by the A.D. 8th century, a mere two and a half centuries after St. Patrick’s death, Ireland was experiencing a literary golden age . Around the time of St. Patrick’s death, the predominately pagan Anglo-Saxons invaded England and became the dominant group. In the late A.D. 6th century, Pope St. Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Such missionary activity proved successful. Yet, by this point, the Irish church had such a reputation for being a center of learning that it was not uncommon for early Anglo-Saxons Christians to go to Ireland to learn study under Irish scholars, most of whom were monks. 
The strong influence of monasticism in Ireland gave way to a strong missionary impulse, and it is in this, as Dawson wrote, “that the Celtic monks made their most important contributions to European culture.”  Communities of monks were established all throughout the North Sea. This even includes in Iceland, where Irish monks settled long before the Vikings discovered it. Irish monks played a pivotal role in the conversion of the remaining pagan regions of the British Isles, and even settled in mainland Europe, where they established monastic communities in places as diverse as France, Germany, Switzerland, and even northern Italy. Many of the few remaining Frankish pagans were converted to Christianity by the Irish monks in the early Medieval era. Many of the Irish monks were themselves of the peasant class, and thus often had what it took to relate to the common people, thereby helping Christianity to become somewhat of a grassroots movement. 
The Irish thus played a TREMENDOUS role in the building up of the Church in Europe, and the Church, in the ensuing centuries, went on to build up Western civilization. For example, throughout the Medieval and early modern eras, the Church served as one of the largest patrons of the arts, with some of the most important artists of the Western tradition – Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Giotto – all having been employed greatly by the Church. Catholicism also served as a major impetus in the founding of the modern university system (some of the earliest universities, as we would recognize them today, were established by the Catholic Church, including the University of Bologna [est. 1088], the University of Paris [est. 1150], Oxford University [est. 1167], Cambridge University [est. 1209], the University of Salamanca [est. 1218-1219], and the University of Naples [est. 1224]). Many major concepts in modern Western jurisprudence are derived from concepts first formulated in canon law (the official set of laws governing the inner workings of the Church).  And even when Christianity began to divide, Christianity in all of its forms had an influence on the West. Erasmus, the founder of humanism, was a Catholic priest, and in fact Renaissance humanism – as opposed to later secular humanism – was highly influenced by Christian thought. Leibniz, who helped spread the Enlightenment into Central Europe, was taught primarily in the Scholastic system (based on Medieval Catholic academic theology), which still had an immense influence in the German educational system well into the 17th century. Leibniz himself believed in God, and provided some of the most popular teachings in the modern era concerning the problem of evil. In the United States, Puritan clergymen established schools such as Harvard University and Yale University initially to serve as seminaries, thus giving an explicitly religious bent to the nations earliest and most influential universities. Some of the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights movement were members of the clergy – Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc.
Not to reduce the history of Western civilization simply to Catholicism or Christianity in general, but no one can deny that the Church has been a major factor in the development of Western civilization, and no doubt the development of Western civilization has the indelible mark of Christianity, Catholicism in specific.
Unfortunately, the same ones who contributed so greatly to the building up of Christendom are now, on a spiritual or ecclesial level, standing in the face of a major existential crisis. Catholicism once served as a major influence in Irish culture, politics, and society. But, this is slowly fading. The Irish church, for example is facing a major decline in vocations. St. Patrick’s College (also known as Maynooth College), for example, was at one time one one of the largest seminaries in Ireland, and in the entire Christian world. In 1899, 82 priests were ordained at Maynooth. Yet, in 2017, there were only six men who entered into Maynooth College. As of early 2018, there were only 36 people in total at the college. Vocations are particularly low among the young, among whom Mass attendance and reception of the sacraments is also low.  Thankfully, the youth in Ireland are still more religious than in other parts of Europe . Yet, this isn’t saying much. A report put out by the State Department of the United States found that 88.4% of Ireland identified as Catholic. The next largest Christian groups in Ireland include the Church of Ireland at a little under 3%, the Presbyterian Church at about a half a percent, and Methodists at only a quarter of a percent.  Yet, in 1993 the regulations on contraception were loosened, and in 2015, 62% of the Irish people voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage.  In 1973, Ireland created an amendment to its constitution that placed heavy regulations on abortion; yet, in 2018, Ireland chose to repeal these regulations in what was called by some a “landslide” vote, with two out of every three Irish citizens voting to increase abortion rights.  If the majority of Ireland’s population (including their politicians) identifies as Catholic, and the majority of Irish people and politicians supported such measures, this thus means that the majority of Ireland’s Catholic population is actively defying the faith.
The same people who helped to shape Christian values in the West have now chosen to betray them. This has been attributed to many things: Ireland’s increased involvement in the E.U. and increased immigration has created a more “global” mentality which leads the Irish to want to transcend their Catholic roots as being “monotone”; a reaction against clericalism (which was rampant in Irish culture) and the current abuse crisis; the urbanization of Ireland, which has led to a more “sophisticated” and “worldly” mentality that sees Catholicism, and Christianity in general, as being “primitive” or an “artifact of the past.” Similar trends are found throughout Europe. In a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, in a survey of 15 Western European nations, 91% of their inhabitants were baptized and identify as Christian; yet, only 81% were raised as Christians beyond their young age, and only 71% still identified as Christian at the time of the survey. Not ideal, but not grim either. Yet, only 22% of Western European Christians go to Church once a month or more. 68% of Finns, 55% of Danes, 55% of Brits, 52% of Austrians, and 49% of Germans identify as Christian but do not regularly practice their faith.
Instead of bringing out or laying the basis for the best of the world, Christians in the West, including the spiritual children of St. Patrick, are capitulating to the worst of it. Celebrating St. Patrick, like celebrating any saint, should lead us to contemplate the significance of that saint. In celebrating the life and actions of St. Patrick, the man who devoted his entire life to the conversion of the Irish people, people of Irish descent should ask themselves, “What are we doing to keep alive his legacy?” All Christian societies – indeed, all Christian individuals – should perpetually ask themselves the same question. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan fulfills his Christian obligation to fulfill Matthew 25 and help people along 5th Ave. awaken from their green beer, corn beef and Shamrock-Shake induced haze and get to work on time, he should ask, “Where did all the monks, missionaries and martyrs go? How have the movers and shakers of Western Christendom allowed themselves to become the ones moved and shaken by the world?”
- Moran, P.F., “St. Patrick,” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York City: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). Accessed on: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11554a.htm. See also An Illustrated History of Ireland, by Sister Mary Frances Clare (London: Longmans & Co., 1868), pg. 72-73. See also, “St. Patrick was born in Scotland, new research shows,” in IrishCentral, August 21, 2018 (accessed on: https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/saint-patrick-born-scotland).
- Moran, “St. Patrick,” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia
- Martos, Joseph, The Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (Vatican II Golden Edition) (Liguori: Liguori Press, 2014), pg. 335
- Dawson, Christopher, The Making of Europe (New York City: Meridian Books, 1958), pg. 174
- ibid., pg. 174-176
- ibid., 176
- Hunter Blair, Peter, The World of Bede (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pg. 101
- Dawson, pg. 177
- ibid., pg. 177-179. See also Martos, pg. 336
- Pinset, Fr. Andrew, “What the Church has given the world,” in The Catholic Herald (May 6, 2011). Accessed on: https://catholicherald.co.uk/news/2011/05/06/what-the-church-has-given-the-world/.
- Keane, James T., “The uncertain future of Catholic Ireland,” in America (February 23, 2018). Accessed on: https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2018/02/23/uncertain-future-catholic-ireland.
- McGarry, Patsy, “Young Irish people among the most religious in Europe,” in The Irish Times (March 27, 2018). Accessed on: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/young-irish-people-among-the-most-religious-in-europe-1.3441046.
- U.S. Department of State, “2004 Report on International Religious Freedom: Ireland”. Accessed on: https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2004/35461.htm.
- Stack, Liam, “How Ireland moved to the Left: ‘The Demise of the Church,'” in The New York Times (December 2, 2017). Accessed on: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/02/world/europe/ireland-abortion-abuse-church.html.
- McDonald, Henry, Emma Graham-Harrison, and Sinead Baker, “Ireland votes by landslide to legalize abortion,” in The Guardian (May 26, 2018). Accessed on: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/26/ireland-votes-by-landslide-to-legalise-abortion.
- The Pew Research Center, “Being Christian in Western Europe” (May 29, 2018), accessed on: http://www.pewforum.org/2018/05/29/being-christian-in-western-europe/