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Patrick is a saint for Christians of all denominations


A fortnight from now, we will be celebrating St Patrick's Day. There will be some pageantry in the cities and towns of Northern Ireland and the Republic to mark the life of the great saint. Most of those publicly involved will be members of the Catholic community. Many Protestants will find it difficult to identify with a saint perceived to have been a Catholic.

Yet, as we uncover the life of St Patrick, there is much to bring together Christians today. For Patrick, there was one common Christian religion in which he was a missionary and a bishop; the other religion was paganism.

Through Patrick's work of mission to the heathen, many came to faith in God the Holy Trinity, were baptised, confirmed and received Holy Communion. Many also became deacons, priests and missionaries in Patrick's church.

It is important to note that Patrick was not an Irishman. He was born and grew up in Roman Britain - perhaps near the Severn Estuary or in Cumbria. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon, and his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest. The family belonged to the town of Bannavem Taburniae and they had a small estate nearby. Understandably, within the Roman Empire, Patrick's language was Latin.

In 410 AD, the city of Rome fell to the invading Goths, heralding the collapse of the Roman Empire. Patrick lived at a time of unprecedented upheaval and insecurity. The Roman legions were no longer able to protect their citizens within their borders. On the west coast of Britain, raids by pirates from Ireland and Scotland became common.

The capture of young men was possibly the most lucrative form of slave trading. Snatch squads were used and family members disappeared.

Patrick was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland. It is likely that Patrick's homeplace was near river or sea - the most likely place for robbers to capture hostages, with minimum risk of being caught and the greatest chance of quick escape.

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Soon, Patrick was a young slave in Ireland, snatched without warning, from family, not knowing anyone, having no knowledge of the language, herding sheep 'near the wood at Foclut by the western sea'.

For six years, Patrick endured this life of intense hardship. Then, in a vision, he was instructed to escape. He fled 200 miles and then travelled overland for 28 days.

Eventually, he arrived back home with his family in Britain. Some hidden years passed - in Britain, France or both - when Patrick studied for ordination and consecration in the British Church. Then, as bishop, he was commissioned for the work of mission in Ireland. With grateful heart, he returned to the land of his slavery.

Towards the end of his action-packed life Patrick wrote a sort of autobiography, 'Confessio'. There it is clear that Patrick's mainstay in his ministry was twofold: constant prayer to God who loved him deeply and constant reading of Holy Scripture.

But, why was Patrick so successful in spreading the Good News of the Gospel?

It was because at the centre of his person, work and mission was the assurance of God's love for him, and the desire by Patrick to show that love to all other people. Patrick showed them in a clear and unequivocal way what God's love was like.

Today, we see that the patron saint of Ireland came from Roman Britain - he was a Brit, not an Irishman. He came as a missionary with a clear proclamation of God's love for all the people of this, our beautiful island home.

At the time, there was one Christian religion. Today, we can't turn the clock back. But, like Patrick, we can pray. And we can replicate the unity which prevailed in the early Church in Ireland.

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