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Catholic Faith Corner

Living in the Light
of Jesus Christ

St. Patrick, Fact or Fiction?

This Friday, St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be giving a talk on the popular Saint to the residents of Notre Dame Village. As I prepared the presentation, I learned a great deal about him that you might find of interest.

Because my name is Kathleen, some people assume that I am Irish. I’m not. But neither was St. Patrick or St. Paddy. He was born in Britain, which in his day was under Roman rule. He signed his name Patricius, the Latin form. He is only Irish be adoption. His day is not so much a celebration of him as of Ireland.

Patrick wrote two works in Latin that we still have:  Confessions (autobiography) and a letter to soldiers of Coroticus who had killed his converts. These works provide us with accepted facts about Patrick. As with other famous people who lived long ago, many legends arose about Patrick.

First Some Misconceptions

 –Canonized saint:  Patrick was never canonized because he lived before that process was put in place. He was declared a Saint by popular acclaim.

  –First to bring Christianity to Ireland: A missionary named Palladius was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431. He left soon and Patrick came the following year.

  –Drove snakes out of Ireland: The story is that as Patrick was making a 40-day fast, snakes attacked him, and he chased them into the sea. However, there never were any snakes in Ireland! Before Patrick’s time, Ireland was covered in ice. It is an island and no snakes came slithering over from the mainland. Snakes are a metaphor for evil (Satan). The legend arose 600 years after Patrick lived.

  –Green: Patrick’s first color was blue. Centuries later green became the color of Ireland’s fight for independence, so it became associated with him.

  –Cornbeef and cabbage:  This custom began in America. Beef was too expensive in Ireland; the Irish ate pork instead.

His Life:

Patrick was born Maewyn Succat. He took the name Patrick, which means “noble” or “father,” when he became a priest.

His family was Christian. Although his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon, Patrick was not religious.

At about age 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and trafficked to Ireland. He became a slave and for six years tended sheep. During this time he developed a relationship with God.

One day he heard a voice predict that he would go home to Britain. Later another voice told him a ship was ready. He escaped and went to a port 200 miles away. He was forbidden to board the ship, but after he prayed, the sailors let him on. After three days sailing, the passengers walked for 28 days in a wilderness and were starving. Patrick told them to trust God and prayed. A herd of swine appeared, providing food.

Back at home he was imprisoned for 60 days. He was reunited with his parents and became a deacon.

Patrick had a vision of a man who gave him a letter entitled the Voice of the Irish. He heard people say, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” He answered that request although it meant doing good to the people who had enslaved him.

Patrick studied for the priesthood in Europe and was ordained there. Then he returned to Ireland. Before preaching he made a 40-day retreat of prayer and fasting in County Mayo on the mountain Croagh Patrick, or The Reek, a place of pilgrimage today.

He had to stand trial, apparently when Christians accused him of financial faults.

He became a bishop and baptized thousands of people and ordained priests to lead them. He also founded churches. It’s said that he converted the High King of Tara by miracles worked on Easter Sunday.

As a foreigner, Patrick had a difficult time. He said he was an alien among barbarians. He was again captured with some of his followers and imprisoned. But he was not a martyr.

Things associated with St. Patrick:

Shamrock: Many believe that Patrick taught the Trinity, three Persons in one God by showing a three-leaf clover. This legend arose in the 1700s. The shamrock is the national flower of Ireland.

Celtic cross:  Tradition has St. Patrick creating this cross when he converted the king of Ireland. The Irish people worshiped several gods and honored the sun. So Patrick fused the two religions by combining the cross with a circle that represented the sun.

Bell: Three relics were taken from Patrick’s grave: a bell, chalice, staff, and manuscript. The bell from 500 AD is almost 8 inches high; it is iron coated with bronze. It is housed in a 9-inch shrine made in 1100.  According to a legend, black birds were attacking Patrick. He rang the bell and they flew away.

Bell shrine, shrine of the bell of St. Patrick, Armagh, Co. Armagh, R4011, with iron bell of St Patrick, Armagh, Co. Armagh, R4010

St. Patrick Cathedral in New York: This constructed when majority of Catholics in the state were Irish.

Patrick was humble: The first sentence of his autobiography is “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”

St. Patrick’s Breastplate:  This is a prayer for protection before going into battle. It’s also called the Lorica or Deer’s Cry because of this legend:

Patrick and some of his men were on the way to visit the pagan king. The king’s men were hiding along the road waiting to attack him. Looking at Patrick and his men, they only saw a herd of deer.  This miracle saved Patrick. Here is the prayer:

Christ be beside me, Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me, King of my heart.
Christ be within me, Christ be below me,
Christ be above me, never to part.

Christ on my right hand, Christ on my left hand,
Christ all around me, shield in the strife.
Christ in my sleeping, Christ in my sitting,
Christ in my rising, light of my heart.

Christ be in all hearts thinking about me,
Christ be on all tongues telling of me.
Christ be the vision in eyes that see me,
In ears that hear me Christ ever be.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.


I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Patrick’s Rune (poem)  

Madeleine L’Engle’s used this translation of the Lorica prayer in her book A Swiftly Tilting Planet:

(Tara is a village in northern Ireland, the home of ancient Irish kings.)
At Tara (here) today in this fateful hour
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And fire with all the strength it hath,
And lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness:
All these I place,
By God’s almighty help and grace,
Between myself and the powers of darkness.

More than 70% of the bishops in the United States have waived the Friday meat restriction for March 17, feast of St. Patrick. Chicago always dyes its river green on this day.

Here is a lovely sung version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

• How will you (or did you) observe the feast of this great Saint?

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