Being a wee bit Irish meself, I’m all for shamrocks and green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. But the legacy of the real St. Patrick is a bit different than the traditional rites of March 17th would suggest. Whenever we feel tempted to succumb to violence or vengeance in our lives as individuals, as a nation, or as a world, this man’s true legacy presents us with a powerful alternative.
Surprisingly, I was reminded of St. Patrick while casually perusing my favorite newspaper this morning and sipping on my coffee (which was not green). A columnist I read regularly did a fascinating background piece on the oft-celebrated saint, pointing out that Patrick of Ireland is one of the most misunderstood, and least appreciated, saints on the church calendar.
Patrick was actually not Irish at all. He was born in Britain in 389 and lived a comfortable life as the son of a minor Roman official until he was kidnapped, at the tender age of 16, by a group of Irish raiders who took him to Ireland and sold him as a slave. Suddenly, he became a person with no more worth or dignity than the livestock he was forced to tend, and, as he himself later described it, he “was chastened exceedingly and humbled every day in hunger and nakedness.” In those difficult times he clung fast to the Christian faith taught him in his childhood and from it drew comfort and strength.
After six years in captivity, Patrick found an opportunity for escape and managed to return to his family in Britain. He was a profoundly changed man; scarred deeply, he yet became convinced that his suffering was meant to serve a greater purpose. He became a priest and decided to return to the land of his oppression — not in anger, not to seek vengeance, but rather to spread the Gospel message of love and reconciliation. As all anthologies of the saints report with pride, Patrick worked for thirty years to establish a network of churches and monasteries throughout Ireland and baptized tens of thousands of people.
Ironically, Patrick is said to be buried in a place called Downpatrick in County Down, Northern Ireland, less than hour from Belfast — an area which was torn apart for many decades by dark memories, ancient crimes, modern-day injustices and resentments (both religious and political), and tragic episodes of violence and bloodshed. Patrick’s land seems to be healing now, and the columnist in my local paper reports that the people of Downpatrick are trying to reclaim the saint’s legacy for all sides of the divide, and for peoples everywhere. What could be more universal, after all, than the message contained in the life of a man who allowed love to triumph over anger in his heart? We could all learn valuable lessons today from the life of Patrick who is rightly celebrated as a saint — not because he banished snakes from Ireland, but rather because he could easily have thrown up walls of hatred, sown seeds of vengeance all around him, and incited others to join him in violence. He chose instead to spend his life building bridges of peace and reconciliation.