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March 17, 2008

Saint Patrick

It's nice to be quoted and rather flattering to be quoted as a source. The e-zine Residential Aliens has a short biographic piece up on Saint Patrick, quite my favourite saint and the one person I will forgo all other pleasures to meet one day. The man who could write in stilted and "old fashioned" Latin, probably in his old age, "Ego Patricius, pecator ...." I, Patrick, a sinner and most unlearned ...

Magnus (or Magonus) Succatus Patricius was born sometime around 385 AD of Romano British parents probably in the West Gloucestershire region now called the Forest of Dean. His family were well off, owning land, a villa and holding important positions in local government. As he himself tells us, he was the son of Calpornius, Decurion and Deacon of the Christian Church and grandson of Potitus, Presbyter (Priest). His mother was from Gaul and her family owned estates near present day Tours.

The Roman naming system complicates any effort to identify his movements until he returned to Ireland in the spring of 429 AD as a Bishop, the first missionary Bishop since St Paul began his journeys in Asia Minor and Southern Europe. His first name would have been given at birth, but was probably only used by his family. It means "Great". His second name is a "Family Name" and is thought to be derived from the name of a Celtic War God - Sucret. The thrid name, the one by which we know him today, is probably a "Nickname". For example, Gaius Julius Caesar's names are "Gaius" (Prenomen) or "given" name and Julius (Nomen familias) or "Family" name. "Caesar" actually is a nickname - poor Julius was bald - and the name means "Hairy". Thus Patricius is probably a nickname given because he wasn't patrician in his manner, education or lifestyle. And he probably saw that as a compliment.

All of that means that we know little or nothing about him that he doesn't tell us himself, and trying to find him, as some people have, in papal or monastic records is almost impossible. This is in part down to the fact that the church was much more "local" in government of things like training, ordination and even consecration of Bishops. Rome did not achieve its universal authority for at least two hundred years after Patrick's mission to Ireland. In Patrick's Church the Bishops were far more autonomous and far less tied to the dictats of Rome. Germanus of Auxerre is probably the man who authorised Patrick's mission and ordained and consecrated him as Bishop.

From Patrick's own words we know that he was at first rejected and Rome's chosen man, a Deacon named Palladius (And also nicknamed Patricius) was consecrated and sent to the southern part of Ireland in 428 AD. According to later historians this mission failed because Palladius died a year into his episcopate, but other evidence suggests that this may not be entirely accurate. What is plain is that Palladius' was not sent as a missionary, but as a Bishop to minsiter to an established congregation. This is where Patrick's mission differs radically - he went to an area that was not Christian, an area in which the only Christians were slaves as he had been. Even more daringly - he returned to the area in which he had been a slave.

And under the Law of the Brehon, once a slave, always a slave. You could never be freed and you could not buy your freedom. Even after twenty two years, his former master would have been able to lay claim to his person and demand his life be forfeited for his having run away. Yet he triumphed, very likely because the Irish could not understand a man who walked into their midst unarmed and unafraid of the consequences of their law. He describes himself as a slave of Christ and therefore no man can touch him. Even now we find it hard to understand that faith and the centuries have cloaked it in legend.

His first "church" was a barn located at a place today called Saul, some four miles from Downpatrick. The barn is long gone, its place taken by a stone church in medieval times and replaced in the 1930's by a modern church. It is here too that he died on the 17th March 461 AD as he had lived, quietly, unassuming and deeply and fiercely loved by everyone he had touched.

As I said, I will forgo all else, just to sit at his feet one day and learn to know this man whose faith changed history and a nation, a faith so steadfast and unshakeable that it brought the fiercest and most feared warriors in the West to a faith they have held ever since. Truly Christ's Steadfast Man.

Posted by The Gray Monk at March 17, 2008 02:22 PM

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