Saturday, March 16, 2013

Rediscovering Patrick

Most of the things popular culture says about St. Patrick are not true (no snakes). However, from what we do know, the real guy behind the image was a true Christian hero.  Phillip Jenkins has some details.
What makes Patrick stand out from his contemporaries, though, is that we can know him through his own unquestioned words, rather than the embellishments of later hagiographers and hero-worshipers. Somewhere around 450, he heard of attacks being made on him by bishops in Britain and Gaul. They had heard of his missionary successes, but were dubious about the means he was using to win them.

Anyone familiar with contemporary missions will recognize the picture – deep suspicion for someone working outside the mainstream agencies and churches, going off on his own, rumors of dubious financial practices. Why was he making such lavish gifts? Was he buying converts?

In response, Patrick composed a Confession, which translates best as a Declaration. In the modern sense of the word, he confessed nothing, beyond admitting his sinful and ignorant state. Point by point, though, he answered his critics. He tells the famous story of how Irish raiders abducted him from his British home. He escaped, but returned as a missionary. He offers a wonderful account of what mission actually meant in those days, in a situation where the bishop could not count on any aid from the Roman Empire or the secular power, beyond the kings or chieftains whose favor he could win.

In a society like that, gifts were an absolute foundation of social life and interaction, and to refuse them was to cut yourself off from any hope of success. Certainly, he tried to be careful about the appearance of corruption. He tells us for instance of “the pious women who of their own accord made me gifts and laid on the altar some of their ornaments and I gave them back to them, and they were offended that I did so.” It was a delicate balance.

The Confession is eminently worth reading, and I still discover new nuggets whenever I open it. One point that struck me this time was how much Patrick emphasizes the role of women in the conversion process. We hear for instance that “a blessed Irishwoman of noble birth, beautiful, full-grown, whom I had baptized, came to us after some days for a particular reason: she told us that she had received a message from a messenger of God, and he admonished her to be a virgin of Christ and draw near to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day after this she most laudably and eagerly chose what all virgins of Christ do. Not that their fathers agree with them: no—they often ever suffer persecution and undeserved reproaches from their parents; and yet their number is ever increasing. How many have been reborn there so as to be of our kind, I do not know—not to mention widows and those who practice continence.”

In passing, Patrick describes a poignant feature of the Irish religious scene. He writes, “But greatest is the suffering of those women who live in slavery. All the time they have to endure terror and threats. But the Lord gave His grace to many of His maidens; for, though they are forbidden to do so, they follow Him bravely.” These slave women were probably British captives seized in raids like the one that had originally claimed Patrick, and like him, trying heroically to keep their faith in their miserable new situation.

Patrick’s greatest defense, though, was the results he had achieved, the “many thousands” he baptized. In pagan Ireland, “those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshiped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God, that the sons and daughters of the kings of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ?” How could this not be God’s work?
 How not indeed.