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Who Was the Real St. Patrick?
There are many legends and traditions associated with St. Patrick's Day. Who was the real St. Patrick?
St. Patrick was not actually Irish. He was born around 373 A.D. in the British Isles near the modern city of Dumbarton in Scotland. His real name was Maewyn Succat. He took the name Patrick, or Patricius, meaning "well-born" in Latin, after he became a priest.
During Patrick's boyhood, the Roman Empire was near collapse and too weak to defend its holdings in distant lands. Britain became easy prey for raiders, including those who crossed the Irish sea from the land known as Hibernia or Ireland. When Patrick was sixteen, he was seized by raiders and carried off to Ireland.
Most of what is known about St. Patrick comes from his own Confession, written in his old age. In his Confession he wrote about his capture:
As a youth, nay, almost as a boy not able to speak, I was taken captive... I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft... And therefore I ought to cry out aloud and so also render something to the Lord for His great benefits here and in eternity-- benefits which the mind of men is unable to appraise.
After Patrick was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave by an Irish chieftain named Niall, he was sold to another chieftain in northern Ireland. Much of Patrick's time was spent alone on the slopes of Slemish Mountain, tending his master's flocks of sheep. During the long, lonely hours in the fields and hills of Ireland, Patrick found comfort in praying. In his Confession he wrote: ...every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed-- the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains;...and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me--as now I see, because the spirit within me was fervent.
Six years passed slowly by. Then in a dream, Patrick heard a voice saying, "Thy ship is ready for thee." This was God's way, he felt, of telling him to run away.
That night he fled. Assured God was leading him, Patrick plunged through the bogs and scaled the mountains which separated him from the sea. He escaped Ireland by ship, but God would call him back years later. Patrick had escaped his boyhood enslavement in Ireland only to hear the call of God as a man to return. He was being called on, he felt, to convert the Irish to Christianity. In his Confession Patrick wrote:
I saw a man named Victoricus, coming from Ireland with countless letters. He gave me one of them, and I read the opening words which were: The voice of the Irish ... I thought at the same moment I heard their voice: ' We beg you, young man, come and walk among us once more.'
And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry. ...they call me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that...He spoke thus: 'He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;' and so I awoke full of joy.
When Patrick began his mission about 430 A.D., Ireland was gripped by paganism. Idolatry prevailed and the Irish knew nothing of Jesus. Patrick decided to go first to the pagan chieftain or king who had enslaved him as a boy. Rather than be put to shame by a former slave, the king set fire to his house and threw himself into the flames.
Patrick then set out for Tara, the seat of the high king of Ireland. When Patrick arrived, Tara was filled with many local kings and druids who were attending the pagan feast of Beltine which coincided with Easter that year. Patrick encamped in the full view of the castle to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ.
On the eve of the festival it was the custom, upon penalty of death, that the high king should light the first bonfire before any others in the land. Patrick, however, had kindled a great fire which gleamed through the darkness. Patrick was summoned before the king. The confrontation which followed is as amazing as Elijah's victory over the prophets of Baal.
Patrick stood and called, May God arise and His enemies be scattered. Darkness fell on the camp. Confused guards began to attack one another. The ground shook and the next day, Easter, a broken king knelt before God's servant. This confrontation between Patrick's God and demonic forces marked the beginning of a thirty-year mission to Ireland.
Patrick traveled the roads and forded the rivers of Ireland for 30 years to see men and women "reborn in God" and come to know the Christ he loved so much. Patrick wrote in his Confession: We ought to fish well and diligently, as our Lord exhorts. Hence, we spread our nets so that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God.
By the time of his death, Patrick had baptized tens of thousands and established hundreds of churches throughout Ireland. Danger and hardship remained his constant companions. Twice he was imprisoned, but he was not discouraged. He wrote in his Confession: Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty who rules everywhere.
Within a century this once pagan land became predominately Christian, possessing such a vigorous faith that Ireland in turn sent missionaries to Scotland, England, Germany and Belgium.
As an old man, Patrick looked back in awe: Those who never had knowledge of God but worshipped idols...have now become...sons of God.
The old saint died in his beloved Ireland on March 17th, 460 AD. The land that once enslaved him, had now been set free.