While we celebrate St. Patrick with music, dancing, corned beef, cabbage and beer, it’s good to know the conversion of body and soul that marked the teenaged Patrick forever as a follower of Christ.
Patricius, the Latin name given him in Roman-ruled Great Britain, marked him as an aristocratic boy. He tells in a letter he wrote late in his life, “My father was Calpornius, a deacon of the Church, and my grandfather was Potitus, a priest. His home was in the village, but he also had a country estate nearby.” The young Patrick clearly grew up “churched,” knowing prayers and practices, but according to this letter he had little interest in God, commandments, or other people’s needs. He considered himself agnostic, wanting only to be wild and free. “I was just a teenager, a tongue-tied lad…before I knew what I really wanted, or what I’d be better avoiding.”
Then one night at the family estate, he was awakened by pirates who bound, gagged, and kidnapped him to be sold as a slave across the sea in Ireland. His new master needed a shepherd to spend hours on a cold, rainy or snowy hillside. The boy was fed just enough to survive. The cold and loneliness of his new life brought tears and trembling.
“It was here the Lord touched my unbelieving ways. I thought over my past negligence and then gave my heart and soul to him as my God…He could see for himself how totally mixed up I was, and took pity on me in my immaturity. He kept me out of harm’s way, giving me a bit of confidence, and building me up as only a father can.”
Patrick fasted as a way to come closer to God. He sang psalms and prayers he’d learned in childhood – 100 each morning and again each evening, yearning to reach God’s ear. One night, after 6 long years, he heard in his sleep, “You are doing right by fasting. Soon you will be on your way back to your home country.” He awoke full of hope.
“God used the time to shape and mold me into something better – someone different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”
Soon after he heard again, “Go your boat is waiting.” He had no idea where to go but walked about 200 miles. “I went in the power of God who led me in the right path every step of the way, so that I was afraid of nothing and at last found that boat…I was undeserving, but God was so generous in his grace.”
He did find his way home and began studies for the priesthood. Years later he heard a different dream-like voice asking, “Holy Boy, come back to us.” As one, the Irish people were summoning him back to share his faith. He had learned of forgiveness and desired nothing more than to return to teach about God the Father, God’s son, and the Holy Spirit who had been his guide.
Great lessons for Lent, whatever your age.
Freeman, Philip. ST. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
McCormack, C M. St Patrick: The Real Story as Told in His Own Words. Dublin: Columba Press, 2008.