St. Patrick, The Irish, and the Catholic Church

Br. Richard Maher, O.P.'s picture

Given the profound contribution to the Catholic Church and the Dominican Order in the United States of Irish Catholicism, which is attributed in large part to St. Patrick’s evangelization, a short reflection on this great Saint and principal patron of Ireland is appropriate.

St. Patrick, born in Scotland in the late fourth century, was captured into slavery as a young boy and brought to what was then a predominantly pagan Ireland. It was there, while being forced to labor as a sheepherder, that he was immersed in the Irish culture and developed a deep affection for the Irish people. During these years of slavery, Patrick never lost his devotion to Christ and our Lord appeared to him in a dream so as to show him the way to freedom from slavery.

This period in which Patrick tended sheep on the Emerald Isle was a preparation of sorts for the time when he would be called back to Ireland as a bishop who would bring many into the fold of Christ’s spiritual flock. Not long after he had been ordained, the Irish people appeared to Patrick in a dream and pleaded with him to return. Indeed, his love for the Irish was too strong to keep him away. Upon his return to Ireland, Patrick embarked on an exhaustive and effective evangelization effort which would last for nearly four decades, until his death on March 17, 461. He was noted for his powerful preaching and his many miracles, through which he converted people of different social and political classes. Needless to say, this effort was far from seamless. Patrick was repeatedly imprisoned and subjected to torture; numerous attempts were made against his life. Amidst these trials, Patrick’s focus and determination to see the Irish brought to Christ won him respect, acclaim, and devotion. Indeed, the evangelization of the “Isle of Mists” is attributed to Patrick and his immediate followers.

If Jesus promised that only a little bit of yeast was needed to leaven the dough, such a promise was fulfilled by St. Patrick’s evangelization of Ireland. Taking Patrick as a model of strength and stalwartness, the Irish Catholics persevered in their faith, most notably amidst the cruel and sustained systematic oppression by the British from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Following in the footsteps of Patrick, the Irish Church burgeoned during this period as the Catholic faith provided for a separate and strong identity for these people as distinct from their Protestant persecutors. Indeed, it was during this time that they grew closer to Our Lord through deep, yet discreet, devotion. Additionally, both Irish immigration to other nations throughout the world and the missionary efforts of its dedicated and abundant priests and religious, spread the influence of Irish Catholicism. The Church in nations such as the United States can attribute much of their ethos and infrastructure to the Irish. The embracing of St. Patrick as a model of the faith and missionary activity is not only for Irish and those of us who can claim Irish ancestry. Indeed, the entire Church can embrace Patrick’s evangelical witness and that of the people to whom he brought the faith.