With St Patrick’s day being here, I wanted to tell the story of St Patrick. Mormons love good missionary stories, and I think the story of St Patrick is a wonderful missionary story. The information below comes from a DVD titled, Christianity-The First Two Thousand Years. (It was originally aired on A&E.) If you want to learn more, there is an interesting article in the Deseret News about St Patrick.
In 410 AD, the Roman Empire stretched from Africa to Britain. Christianity was the official faith of the Empire. At this time, the empire started to fail, and barbarians descended on Rome. Troops were recalled to protect the city, leaving outlying areas unprotected. Fifth century Ireland was untouched by Rome and Christianity. These Norsemen descended on Britain, capturing a boy 16 year old boy named Succat, later to be known as Patrick. He entered Ireland as a slave, where he was a shepherd. He was a slave for 6 years, before God told him in a dream to run away. Quoting from the DVD,
“Escaping across the Irish sea, the now devout youth was reunited with his overjoyed parents. But Patrick seemed changed, restless, unable to settle down. One night in a dream he has a vision of the Irish people. They asked him, with one voice, to return to them and to bring them the word of God. Thus Patrick’s journey to sainthood begins.
Patrick studies for 12 years to prepare himself, and in 432, he is sent to Ireland as a missionary bishop. This is his long-awaited opportunity to spread the Gospel among the Irish. Patrick is not blinded to the risk of challenging the gods of the war-like Irish, yet he defies the Druid priest by lighting the forbidden fire high on the hill Swain to celebrate Easter.
Despite these obstacles to converting the Irish, Patrick succeeds where others might have failed, perhaps because he teaches the Irish a Christianity that harmonizes easily with their indigenous religion.
Terence Murphy, professor of history at American University says, “The groundwork was laid by the Celtic religion of Druidism, which had an emphasis on the sacred number 3. The Irish were already used to gods who had 3 persons. There was an emphasis on immortality, the immortality of the soul, and an emphasis on resurrection in the afterlife in the Druidic religion.
Patrick also presents to the Irish a benevolent, rather than a punishing God, a god who created the world for human beings to enjoy. These beliefs are expressed in an ancient prayer, attributed to him.
Legends about St. Patrick abound. It is said that he used the shamrock to explain the trinity, that he drove the snakes from Ireland. By the time of Patrick’s death in 461, Ireland is overwhelmingly Christian. With Patrick now gone, what emerges from the Irish landscape, is a new society, a society of monks. They are the spiritual heirs of Patrick. Neither they, nor Patrick could know that they would preserve the best of classical civilization, not only for Ireland, but for all of Europe. Within a decade of Patrick’s mission, there are hundreds of monasteries all over the countryside.
In contrast to the European continent, where the bishops of large cities hold authority, in Ireland, it is the abbots of monasteries who preside over religious life.The role of the abbot is not the only unique aspect of Celtic Christianity.Irish priests hear private confessions, while a Roman Christians must confess their sins before the entire congregation.The Celtic Church also refuses to legislate private moral and social behavior.One of the ways the faith of the Irish takes flight is reflected in the roles of women.Bridget of Kildare is a powerful leader of the Irish Christian church.
Terence Murphy relates that ‘In Ireland, there are female saints, like Bridget.Bridget stands out because she is the female equivalent for Ireland of Patrick.She is regarded in a special way.One of her names in the Middle Ages was ‘Mary of the Gael,’In other words, the virgin Mary equivalent of the Irish people.’
This Mary of Ireland would found, build, and supervise, an immense monastery, housing both nuns and monks. And now something amazing begins to transpire in the great monastic centers of Ireland. A society that before Patrick, had relied solely on an oral tradition, now becomes literate under the guidance of Christian missionaries. In a matter of a generation, Irish monks not only read and write, but had become the world’s finest scholars in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
Terence Murphy relates that ‘The Irish monks had an ethos of study, as a way of worshipping God: work, and prayer, and study. Their work was largely copying down manuscripts, preserving learning, as well as augmenting learning. So at the center of every Irish monastic institution, there would be a Scriptorium, a place of writing and a library, a place for studying.
The flowering of Irish learning comes not a moment too soon. In the chaos of the barbarian invasions, all the great libraries of Western Europe are destroyed. Yet, while the ancient classical civilizations are crumbling, Irish monks are devoting themselves to copying and preserving the literature of the vanishing culture.
Paul L Maier, professor of History, Western Michigan University states, ‘I think it would be safe to say that every book written before the year 1000 AD— that includes all of the Greco-Roman classics, that includes all of Holy Scripture, Old and New Testaments, that includes all the theological works, from the Jewish side, that includes Josephus, from Augustin or anyone else, we would not have these books today, if it had not been for the manuscript recopying in these monasteries.’
And so it is in western history and culture, are preserved intact by the hand of a few Irish monks as the monks on this wind-swept island toil away at their illuminating manuscripts. Western Europe enters the period that would come to be known as the Dark Ages, ushered in by the barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome.
It seems that Mormons often look down on other religions when we refer to the Apostasy. I can remember attending a Lutheran Bible Study class years ago. When I spoke to the Lutheran priest, he said that Mormons act like nothing happened between 100 AD and 1830. He found that Mormons were completely unaware of most history, and I must say I still agree with him. I have endeavored to learn more.
Without St Patrick, and the conversion of Ireland, Christianity would have lost some priceless treasures that all Christians enjoy. I think St Patrick’s missionary stories should be better known, and lauded by all Christians. I think his life is an example of Christian service, and forgiveness, that we all should emulate.