The story of St Patrick coming to Ireland is like a photographic negative of the bible story of the prodigal son.
The story of Patrick can be compared to the great stories of the Bible. It is like a photographic negative of the story of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son left his father’s house willingly, whereas Patrick was taken by force. The Prodigal squandered his inheritance and ended up in hardship, whereas Patrick during those years of slavery found his true inheritance. The high point of the Prodigal’s return was his father’s beautiful gesture of forgiveness. On the other hand, in the story of Patrick there is a gesture of equal beauty and power when he himself returned to the very people who had destroyed his youth.
The story of the Prodigal Son first took place in the loving imagination of Jesus, whereas what Patrick did happened at a particular time and in a particular place. However, his story can only be relished to the full in the heart of the risen Lord whose love inspired it.
Like Abraham, Patrick was called by God to leave his father’s house and make his home in a distant land where he, in turn, would become the father of a people. After the Jews, the Irish are the most widely scattered people on earth, and wherever they go the story of Patrick is heard.
Like Moses, Patrick led his people to freedom. For both men, the years of early adulthood were spent in exile, and each heard the call to return to a place of slavery to carry out God’s work.
Patrick’s own people
The people of Moses were the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. But who were the people of Patrick?
They were the Latin-speaking Christians of Britain and Europe, citizens of the Roman Empire. He speaks to them in the two pieces of his own writing which have come down to us, namely the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus. Like Saint Paul, the first and greatest missionary, Patrick was proud to be a citizen of Rome. For him, the Empire was a Christian community which was called to honour the liberty of the people of God, whoever they were and wherever they might be. Through his writings, he sought to lead his fellow citizens of Rome, his own flesh and blood, away from the slavery of imperial arrogance.
The people of Patrick included his fellow clerics, who considered him too ignorant to be a bishop, who suspected him of embezzling funds and who thought that the Gospel could not and should not be preached to barbarians. It is clear from his writings, which are addressed in particular to this group, that he felt himself put down and belittled by them. The simple way in which he speaks about this and about his own personal struggles is a Spirit-filled call to clerics of every age to free themselves from the occupational hazard of smugness.
The people of Patrick also included the wild savages living at the ends of the earth, who tore him away from his family, sold him into slavery and later persecuted him, robbed him, and on no less than twelve occasions tried to kill him. These people hated this man and his strange, new teaching. Yet Patrick gave his life for them, not by shedding his blood but by enduring their abuse and their treachery. By doing so, he freed them and their children from the yoke of slavery to tribalism and false worship.
Finally, the people of Patrick were and are those who have heard his story and have been affected by it. In reading his words, we can taste the life of one of the great followers of Jesus. Patrick will always be an inspiration.
Patrick and the people of Ireland
Patrick’s story has a special significance for those of us who live in Ireland because there are places here associated with his name – Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and many others. These places call us to stop and think.
The story of Patrick is being re-lived in Ireland today in the many young people whose expectations of a good standard of living have been cruelly shattered. The modern equivalent of slavery is the dole queue, whereby people are stripped of their independence and their standing in the community. Hand in hand with the dole queue is the pain of exile, which is the same today as it was in Patrick’s time.
The story of Patrick is being lived out in the political and religious divisions which are rooted in the age-old conflict between Ireland and Britain. The greatest source of anguish in Patrick’s life was the failure of the peoples of these two islands to live in peace as neighbours and fellow Christians.
Just as Patrick was asleep when that call of the people of Ireland first came into his life, so today the power of his story lies dormant. Now it is we and not Patrick who are asleep and we need to hear these words of Isaiah on the lips of Jesus:
You will listen and listen again, but not understand, see and see again, but not perceive. For the heart of this nation has grown coarse, their ears are dull of hearing, and they shut their eyes, for fear they should see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart and be converted and healed by me. (Mt. 13:15)