Celtic Cross, Ireland
(…continued) There are many legends about Patrick, such as how he chased all the snakes out of Ireland. He probably did not do that, but he did do just about everything else. Patrick proclaimed the Gospel, converted a large percentage of the population, improved the morality of the entire island, established churches, founded schools and monasteries, converted kings, successfully fought to end the Irish slave trade, and tried to convince the English that many of the Irish were now their brothers and sisters in Christ. His work led to a more unified Ireland and the beginnings of a national government, a huge step forward from the dozens of local kings and chiefs who were constantly fighting. The changes Patrick brought to Ireland in those thirty years are astounding.
Patrick’s influence spread beyond Ireland. His work to abolish the slave trade was the first campaign anywhere to end that terrible practice, so prevalent in the ancient world that it was a taken for granted fact of life. Patrick also revitalized the missionary outreach work of the church. One hundred years before Patrick, the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian, and soon after declared Christianity the official religion of the entire Roman Empire. This greatly expanded the borders, population, and influence of the Christian Church, but it also stifled its global mission. The church had much to do to just catechize and baptize all the new Christians within the empire, and forgot, for a while, about those who were beyond it. England was within the Roman Empire, but Ireland was not, and there was little interest in going there with the Gospel. Patrick’s desire was even opposed at first by the church authorities, but he, like Paul, was determined to take the Gospel to ‘the ends of the earth.’ And Ireland was truly, at that time, the ‘end of the earth,’ with nothing beyond it but the yet uncrossed ocean.
There is one more important aspect of this story. The Romans, though often cruel to their enemies, had brought civilization, order, and peace to the lands they conquered and ruled. At the time of Patrick’s capture as a boy, Ireland was beyond the borders of the Roman Empire and civilization. It was a barbaric land of no law, no rights, and no peace. By the end of Patrick’s life, Ireland was a changed nation, rapidly increasing in education, law, order, stability, and certainly faith. At the same time, the great Roman Empire was in sharp decline—decadent and corrupt and much weakened. Within fifty years of Patrick’s death Rome was invaded and defeated by barbarians, sacked and burned. All of Europe then entered a time of war, instability, destruction, and disease. It looked like the lights were going out on civilization, and the coming centuries were known as the Dark Ages.
But as the lights were going out on the continent, the lights were just coming on in Ireland. Ireland, which had only recently entered the ranks of civilized nations, now became the primary preserver and protector of the culture of that civilization. In the decades between Patrick and the fall of Rome, the schools in Ireland accumulated the literary treasures of Western religion, philosophy, science, and literature; filling their monastery and university libraries with thousands of books, and engaging in the work of making more copies. Now, as the libraries of Rome and the rest of Europe were being ransacked and destroyed, the new libraries in Ireland were safe, largely untouched by the madness and destruction of those dark years. Then, in the generations that followed, it was the Irish that went back to the continent as missionaries to help relight the fires of Christianity and civilization.
This is a brief (and over-simplified) account of the story more fully told in Thomas Cahill’s best-selling book “How the Irish Saved Civilization” (1996). In this first volume of his 7-part “Hinges of History” series, Cahill describes the large part the Irish played in preserving Western culture. Poor monks, working in dark and cold monasteries throughout Ireland, kept alive the treasures of the church and civilization, while the rest of Europe endured a couple centuries of chaos and destruction. The importance of the Irish during this critical time is not well known, but was crucial. Patrick had arrived at just the right time.
St. Patrick’s faith, commitment, and vision for mission continue to instruct and inspire. We learn from Patrick something about forgiveness. He returned to the very people that enslaved him. He did not let himself be consumed by hate, bitterness, and revenge. We learn from Patrick about obedience to God, even when the task is difficult and dangerous. And we see in Patrick’s life a lesson on suffering; how God can take even the dark tragedy of being kidnapped and enslaved as a boy, and turn it into a great blessing for himself, for Ireland, and for all of civilization.
Every day I am ready to be betrayed, enslaved, murdered, or whatever else may come my way. But I am not afraid, because of the promises of heaven. I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty. –St. Patrick
Acts 13:47 — For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
Acts 16:9-10 — During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Like Patrick!)
Matthew 28:19 — (Jesus said), “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
May the Power of God preserve us.
May the Wisdom of God instruct us.
May the Hand of God protect us.
May the Way of God direct us.
May the Shield of God defend us.
May the Angels of God guard us.
— Against the snares of the evil one.
May Christ be with us!
May Christ be before us!
May Christ be in us,
Christ be over all!
May Thy Grace, Lord,
Always be ours,