Saint Patrick’s World (1993)

Liam De Paor’s book, Saint Patrick’s World, takes the reader on a journey through the hagiographical sources of St. Patrick’s life and ministry. It begins with a very helpful introduction that locates Patrick in his context—i.e., fifth-century Britain and Ireland—and tries to distill what we can know, in regards to historicity, about Patrick. The latter he gleans from primary documents, mostly church councils, that list rules as well as the names of bishops who attended. For example, the councils mandate that a bishop must remain in the diocese to which he is assigned, because bishops might be tempted to travel for a more prestigious episcopate or for a more lucrative one. This call to stability will be important in considering the historical Patrick.

In addition to rules of conduct, the councils tell us who is where because the signatures include place names. De Paor tells us that later tradition—seventh century and onwards—places St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland in 432. But De Paor convincingly argues that this date is “spurious” (40). According to De Paor, later annalists inserted the date 432 to (a) fit their chronology and (b) to downplay the importance of Bishop Palladius, who arrived in 431. It seems the later writers wanted to make the tradition that Patrick converted Ireland more plausible, so they inserted his arrival immediately after Palladius’. Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine to be the first bishop in Ireland in 431. According to De Paor, by inserting Patrick’s arrival immediately after Palladius’, they were hoping to diminish Palladius’ importance and promote Patrick—who had already become the important saint in Ireland by the seventh century—to the forefront.

And indeed, there were others before (or at least alongside) Patrick, three of import: Secundinus, Auxilius, and Iserninus, who seem to be the “founders of the church in Ireland”—again at least in the Irish east midlands. De Paor notes that “according to the annals,” Secundinus, Auxilius, and Iserninus were sent to Ireland “to ‘help Patrick,’ in 439” (41). But, according to De Paor’s chronology, Patrick’s captivity and enslavement would have taken place in the 430s, so it’s likely that all four of these other ministers—Palladius, Secundinus, Auxilius, and Iserninus—were working in Ireland before Patrick.

Thus, I find it interesting to think that the evangelization of Ireland was not as straightforward as later hagiography tells us. De Paor suggests that all five men could have been leading communities in different parts of Ireland, which means that Patrick did convert and baptize “many thousands of people” (106) but it also means that others could have been doing the same alongside him.

De Paor’s timeline, then, for Patrick’s life runs something like this:

  • 415 – born in norther Roman Britain
  • 430 – raiders enslaves Patrick along with many others
  • 437 – escapes back to Britain, likely also spending time in Gaul
  • 445 – becomes a deacon
  • 450 – becomes a priest
  • 460 – becomes a bishop
  • 470s – British seniors bring charges against him
  • late 470s – writes his Declaration and, soon afterwards, his Letter
  • 493 – dies

This chronology brings a realness to Patrick that some of the later annals remove, not least because he would have had to live 120 years to make the timeline they had fit. De Paor’s reconstruction places him in his late 70s at the time of his death. 493, by the way, is one of the dates that one of the later annals includes as his death year, a feature that could be, according to De Paor, “based on a contemporary record and may be approximately correct” (89–91, 94–95).

St. Patrick’s Declaration (Confessio) represents Patrick’s response to charge brought against him—namely, that he was moving around geographically as a bishop without proper authority to do so. De Paor identifies three specific subcharges to which Patrick was responding: “(1) that his activity of converting the heathen was wrong or out of order; (2) that he lacked authority for what he was doing; (3) that he was acting for profit” (91).

The Declaration also represents one of the two primary sources we have for Patrick’s life. It tells us much though.

Patrick begins by narrating some of his story: that at age 16 he was carried off into slavery in Ireland and that around that time, “the Lord made me aware of my unbelief, so that—however late—I might recollect my offences and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God” (96). He then ends his introduction with doxology and a note about his ministry: “I make known God’s gift and the eternal comfort He provides” and “I spread God’s name everywhere dutifully and without fear, so that after my death I may leave a legacy to so many thousands of people” (98).

After escaping and returning to Britain, Patrick received his call to go to Ireland in a dream, and he went about to find a means of transportation back to Ireland. He found the ship he was looking and was allowed permission to board after praying to God. They traveled three days on the water and twenty-eight days on land, reaching the point of starvation after their food supplies ran out. Patrick told his fellow travelers to trust in God, and suddenly a herd of pigs appeared. They were able to eat and regain their strength. Thus, Patrick converted the travelers through God’s gracious gift of pigs (99).

Patrick had other dreams, one of special importance to him revealed how the Spirit prays in us with “groanings which cannot be expressed in words (quoting Rom 8:26).”

Next, Patrick begins his defense against the allegations the meeting in Britain had leveled at him. He had confided to a friend before becoming a deacon that he had committed a sin, and it was this sin that served as a “pretext” to bring charges against him (101). Patrick is clearly writing to say that he is practicing genuine ministry in Ireland, as opposed to searching out profit.

I was struck by the confidence with which Patrick writes; he clearly has a vocation to minister to the Irish, the people at the ends of the earth, so that Scriptures about ministering to the far ends of the earth might be fulfilled. Boldly Patrick asserts his perseverance in the faith since his conversion, testifies to the signs God showed him, and gives “thanks to God without ceasing—because He has often been lenient with my foolishness and my carelessness” (105). All of this, but especially this third item, also reveal, I think, something of Patrick’s humility.

Patrick next refutes the charge of profiting off of his ministry by revealing that he landholding to fund his ministry and those he ministers to so that “poverty and misfortune” are part of his life, not “wealth and luxury” (107). Patrick trusts in God to provide.

He concludes by casting woe upon those who worship the sun but blessing upon those who worship the “true sun, Christ, who will never perish” (108). And he, once again, states that only love of Jesus and the Gospel motivate his ministry among the Irish. He considers his ministry a gift from God and it is this gift he wishes to testify to before he dies.

Next, Patrick’s Letter against the Soldiers of Coroticus, the second primary source we have from Patrick himself, shows the passion with which Patrick still ministered late in his life. The Letter itself, so De Paor thinks, is more or less contemporary to his Declaration. It is addressed to the soldiers of Coroticus, who seems to be a minor war-lord/slave-trader. Part jeremiad, part come-to-Jesus meeting, Patrick’s Letter bluntly states that pillagers and slave traders have no part in the Christian community. Giving the testimony of his own capture years earlier, Patrick speaks to the soldiers as someone who knows the results of their actions, and he calls them to repent and to leave their duties under Coroticus. He closes his letter bearing witness to peace: “Peace in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (113).

The next part of De Paor’s book collects later sources on Patrick, beginning with the seventh-century (and later) annals in which the date of 432 is established as Patrick’s arrival in Ireland (the problems with which were addressed earlier). It is interesting to see how each subsequent document elaborates a bit more on Patrick’s arrival as well as Palladius’ departure. And it’s interesting to see the sorts of things that these early medieval scribes thought merited recording. It makes me think that they weren’t too different from us, at least in their curiosity about their past.

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