Saint Patrick is a greatly loved and celebrated saint. Why is that, and why is March 17th so significant? One reason is that he lived a life filled with truth and simplicity; another was his willingness to give his all even in challenging circumstances. Born in late fourth century Britain, he grew up as a Roman citizen, his father, a deacon, and his grandfather, a priest. But at sixteen, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken to the West coast of Ireland. He was forced to work as a herdsman for six long years, similar to many other young men.
Patrick, however, began realizing that he had rebelled against the teachings of Christ and gradually turned more and more to prayer. He saw that God was with him in his difficulties and was indeed his Father and Protector. Then in a dream, a voice told him he would return to his native land, and in another, that his ship was ready. After much hardship and a brief sojourn in what was probably France, Patrick joyfully reunited with his family in England. But this was short-lived. For he had a vivid dream in which he heard the voice of the Irish people begging him to return, reminiscent of St. Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man pleading for help.
Patrick was deeply moved but in great turmoil. He felt greatly hampered by his limited education and his many shortcomings. Finally, throwing off every doubt, Patrick plunged into his call, traveling all over Ireland, even to wholly pagan places, baptizing and confirming thousands! Among his converts were young men who became monks, and young women, often daughters of chieftains whose fathers often opposed their choices. Believing strongly in monasticism, Patrick approved the prominence of monastic houses in the Irish Church. A later and famous example of answering a monastic call was another patron saint of Ireland, St. Brigit of Kildare, who defied her chieftain father.
Knowing the power of petty chieftains, and lawgivers, Patrick learned to give many gifts, thereby guaranteeing the safety of the clergy. But he accepted no gifts in return. Always straightforward, he was much trusted. Nonetheless, his life was threatened. One time he was put in chains by those who wished to kill him, but was finally set free by the intervention of influential friends. Nor was he spared criticism. After becoming well-known in Ireland, he was charged by his superiors in Britain that he was seeking religious office for its own sake. Patrick was deeply grieved and replied that “in exultation of heart before God… I never had any motive except for the gospel and the promises of God …”
His life and legacy are clear proof of the words of Jesus: “By their fruits, you will know them.” (Mt 7:16.)