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By PAT TRAVERS
This weekend, people throughout the world are celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day, when Irish heritage is celebrated by those whose ancestors came from Ireland and those with more sentimental links to that nation. As one who shares both Irish descent and Saint Patrick’s name, I’ve always taken an interest in the many forms of celebration that take place on this day, from dyeing the Chicago River green to the consumption of green beer in copious amounts to the parades in many large cities of merrymakers dressed in green.
Behind these green-themed celebrations, however, stands a man who played a truly remarkable role in the spread of the Christian faith and in the history of Ireland and of Western Europe as a whole. He was a person who had to overcome many obstacles and personal limitations to bring his vision of a Christian Ireland to fulfillment, and who thus was aware that, in the end, it was God who was responsible for the success he enjoyed in this effort.
Remarkably little is known for sure about the details of Patrick’s life. He appears to have lived in the fifth century, and to have been born in Roman Britain as the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest. (In that time and place, Catholic priests were still allowed to marry and have children.)
Despite his religious background, there is some indication that he was not a teenager of the highest moral character. At about the age of 16, he was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland, where he was sold as a slave, and spent six years herding animals. During this time, he reflected on his evil ways and came closer and closer to the God of Christianity, even though Ireland at the time had few, if any, Christians.
After escaping from slavery, he first returned home to Britain and then began studies for the priesthood in France. In this, he faced a significant challenge, because his education had been interrupted by his captivity, and he lacked the command of the Latin language in which his studies were conducted that would have been normal for a candidate for the priesthood. After considerable struggle and perseverance he was ordained as a priest, and soon experienced what he understood to be a call from God to return to Ireland as a Christian missionary, despite the personal danger that he would face there.
Bravely confronting the political and religious leadership of Ireland, Patrick converted many people to the Christian faith, establishing churches, convents, and monasteries. Eventually, he was named to be Bishop of Ireland on the basis of this success, but it was then that he experienced the great crisis of his life. Motivated by jealousy, some Christian leaders in Britain brought charges of wrongdoing against Patrick, perhaps based on the sins of his adolescence. They tried to block his return to Ireland to lead the Church there.
In response to these accusations, Patrick wrote a short book known as his Confessions, in which he told the story of his conversion, his relationship with God, and his stewardship of the Church. Having overcome the opposition of his enemies, Patrick returned to Ireland, spending his life there as leader of the Church until his death.
Since then, his memory has been venerated in Ireland and elsewhere by a variety of Christian Churches as one of the great missionaries and evangelists of Christian history. Because missionaries from Ireland have, in turn, spread the Christian faith to many other countries, including our own, Saint Patrick’s efforts have now borne fruit throughout the world.
One feature of the celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day is the use of the shamrock, or three-leaved clover, which also gives rise to the prominent use of the color green. The legend is that Saint Patrick, while trying to explain to the Irish the mystery of the Trinity — the Christian belief that there is only one God who nevertheless consists of three distinct persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) — used the fact that the shamrock is one plant that includes three distinct leaves.
While it is by no means certain that this legend is true, it certainly reflects the basic truth of Patrick’s life: that he was a man who overcame his limitations and challenges through his faith in God and his desire to share that faith with the people of Ireland, from whom it has now been passed to so many others of us as well.
The Reverend Pat Travers is pastor of Holy Name Catholic Church.
Perspectives is a regular column sponsored and written by members of the Ketchikan Ministerial Association.