Catholic Activity: St. Patrick's Testimony
The feast of St. Patrick as popularly celebrated is badly in need of surgery. In an attempt to rid the occasion of indignities and restore to this saint some of his due, we have had recourse to the Confession of St. Patrick, an inspiring read-aloud story for this night. It has been called by Oliver St. John Gogarty, in his I Follow St. Patrick, "the oldest and perhaps the most important document in British history."
More accurately called a testimony than a confession, it is too long to reproduce in full here (although actually not a very long document); so we have used the most exciting and interesting parts. Discussed as it is read, it will help give the family a right understanding of the greatness of this saint, his humility, his trials, his boyhood and manhood, and will discover for them, in this long-ago writing by St. Patrick, doctrines we are teaching our children today.
1. I, Patrick, sinner, am the most illiterate and inconsiderable of all the faithful, and am despised in the hearts of many.
I had for father Calpurnius, a deacon, one of the sons of Potitus, a presbyter, who belonged to the village of Bannavem Taberniae; for he owned a small farm hard by, where I was made captive.
At the time I was about sixteen years old. I had no knowledge of the True God, and I was led to Ireland in captivity with many thousand others, according to our deserts, because we departed from God and did not keep his commandments, and we were not obedient to our priests, who were wont to admonish us for our salvation. And the Lord poured upon us the fury of his anger, and scattered us among many gentile nations, even unto the ends of the earth, where now my littleness may be seen among stranger folk. [It is supposed that in describing his own sins he has been a bit hard on himself; that perhaps he was, first, an unenlightened Christian as compared to, later, a tremendously inspired one.]
2. And there the Lord opened the understanding of my unbelief, so that though late, I might summon my faults to mind and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who regarded my low estate, and pitied my ignorance and youth, and kept watch over me before I knew him or had attained discernment or could distinguish good from evil, and fortified me and comforted me as a father his son. [There follows a long passage, very touching, wherein he acknowledges and apologizes for his lack of learning. It was an embarrassment he never shook off, although he was hardly what we would call uneducated. His early education had ended at fifteen; later at around twenty-two, when he decided he wanted to be a priest, there arose his unalterable sense of inferiority when he compared his scholarship to those who had been students most of their young lives.]
12. . . . This I do know with full certainty, that before I was afflicted [in capture and slavery] I was like a stone which lies in the deep mire; and he that is mighty came, and in his mercy lifted me up, and set me on the top of the wall. . . .
16. Now after I came to Ireland, daily I pastured flocks, and constantly during the day I prayed. More and more there grew the Love of God and the Fear of Him, and my Faith increased, and my Spirit was stirred up, so that in a single day I uttered as many as a hundred prayers, and nearly as many in the night so that I stayed even in the woods and the mountain. Before Dawnlight I used to be roused to prayer, in snow, in frost, in rain. And I felt no harm, nor was there any slothfulness in me (as I now see), because then the spirit in me was fervent.
17. And there verily one night I heart in my sleep a voice saying to me, "You fast to good purpose, soon to go to your fatherland." And again after a very little time I heard the Answer speaking to me, "See, your ship is ready." And it was not near, but was far off about 200 miles. And I had never been there, nor had I knowledge of any person there.
And thereon shortly afterwards I took myself to flight and left the man with whom I had been for six years; and I came in the strength of God who prospered my way for good, and I encountered nothing alarming until I came to that ship.
18. And on the very day I came, the ship sailed from its anchorage. And I declared that I had to sail away with them. And the shipmaster was displeased and replied harshly with anger. "On no account seek to go with us."
When I heard this, I departed from them to go to the hut where I was lodging; and on the way I began to pray. And before I had completed my prayer, I heard one of them. He was shouting loudly after me, "Come quickly, these men are calling you."
19. And after three days we reached land, and for twenty-eight days we traveled through a desert; and food failed them and hunger overcame them. And one day the shipmaster began to say to me, "How is this, you Christian? You say your God is great and almighty. Why then can't you pray for us? We're in danger of starvation. Hardly are we like to see a human being again."
Then I spoke plainly to them.
"Turn in faith and with all your heart to the Lord my God, to whom nothing is impossible, so that he may send you food today for your journey, until you can eat no more, for everywhere he has plenty."
And by God's help, so it came to pass. Lo, a herd of swine appeared on the track before our eyes; and they killed many of them and spent two nights there, and were well refreshed, and their dogs were fed full, for many of them had fainted and were left half dead by the way.
And after this they offered the fullest thanks to God, and I became an object of honor in their eyes, and from that day on they had food in plenty. They even found wild honey and gave me a piece of it. But one of them said, "This is offered in sacrifice" [apparently pagan].
Thanks be to God, I tasted none of it.
23. Again . . . I was in Britain with my kin, who welcomed me as a son and in good faith besought me that now at least, after the great tribulations which I had endured, I would not ever again go away from them.
And there verily I saw in the night visions a man whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland with countless letters. He gave one of them to me, and I read the beginning of the letter, which was entitled, "The Voice of the Irish;" and while I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought that at that very moment I heard the voice of those that lived beside the Wood of Focluth, which is near the western sea. And thus they cried out, as if from one mouth, "We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk among us yet again."
And I was deeply broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I awoke. . . .
27. . . . After thirty years had passed they found [he is speaking of his elders in religion] as an occasion against me a matter which I had confessed before I became a deacon. In my anxiety, with sorrowing heart, I disclosed to my closest friend what I had done in my youth on one day, no, in one hour, because I had not then triumphed. I cannot tell, God knows, if I was then fifteen years old, and I did not believe in the living God — nor had I believed from my infancy; I remained in death [sin] and unbelief until I was thoroughly chastened and humbled in truth by hunger and nakedness, and that daily.
29. Accordingly, on that day when I was rejected by the aforesaid persons whom I have described, during the night I saw in the night visions. There was a writing without honor against my face [their accusations of him]. And meanwhile I heard the Divine Answer speaking to me, "We have seen with wrath the face of So-and-so. (I suppress the name.) He did not say, "You have seen with wrath," but "We have seen with wrath," as if in that matter he linked himself with me.
As he said, "He that touches you is as he that touches the apple of my eye." [And as He said: "Whatsoever you do to these, the least of My brethren, you do it to Me."]
35. A long task it is to narrate in detail the whole of my labour, or even parts of it I shall briefly tell in what manner the most gracious God often delivered me from slavery and from the Twelve Perils by which my soul was beset, besides many plots and things which I am not able to express in words — lest I should tire out my readers. [Bless him!]
37. Many were the gifts proffered to me with wailing and with tears [by those who wished him not to go back to Ireland]. And I displeased them and also, against my wish, some of my elders. But through God's guidance, in no way did I acquiesce or surrender to them. Not my grace was it, but God who conquered in me and resisted them all, so that I came to the Irish heathen to preach the Gospel and to endure insults from the unbelieving . . . and to meet many persecutions, even unto bonds: and so that I should give up my free condition for the profit of others.
38. Because I am greatly a debtor to God, who afforded me such great grace that through me many people should be regenerated to God and afterwards confirmed, and that clergy should everywhere be ordained for them — for a people newly come to belief, whom the Lord took from the ends of the earth, as he promised of old through his prophets:
". . . I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou should be for salvation unto the ends of the earth."
39. . . . And there I wish to wait for the promise of him who never disappoints.
40. For that reason then we ought to fish well and diligently, as the Lord forewarns and teaches saying, "Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. . . ."
Therefore it was urgently necessary that we should spread our nets to take a great multitude and a throng for God, and that everywhere there should be clergy to baptize and exhort the poverty-stricken and needy folk, as the Lord in the Gospel warns and teaches, saying:
"Go ye therefore now and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."
41. Whence Ireland, which never had the knowledge of God, but up to the present always adored idols and abominations — how has there lately been prepared a people of the Lord and the name given to them of Children of God? The sons of the Scots and the daughters of their chieftains are seen to become the monks and virgins of Christ.
42. But once especial there was one blessed lady of Scottic birth, noble of line, very lovely, and of full age, whom I myself baptized; and after a few days she came to me for a certain purpose. She disclosed to us that she had received from God a private admonition, and it warned her to become a Virgin of Christ and live closer to God.
Thanks be to God, on the sixth day after, most worthily and zealously she snatched at that vocation, as all the Virgins of Christ do in like manner; not with the consent of their fathers; no, they endure persecution and lying reproaches from their kindred, and yet their numbers increase all the more and we cannot tell how many of our race are thus reborn there, besides widows and the continent.
But the women who are held in slavery are in the worst toils. They constantly endure even unto terrors and threats. But the Lord gave grace to many of my handmaidens; for, although they are forbidden, they resolutely follow the example of the others. [St. Brigid was a slave for a while.]
43. Therefore, even if I should wish to depart from them, and thus proceeding to Britain — and gladly ready was I to do so — as to my fatherland and kindred; and not that only, but to go as far as Gaul [France], to visit the brethren and behold the face of the saints of my Lord [one of his kindred is thought to be St. Martin of Tours, and perhaps the saints he wished to see were those thought to have been his teachers, St. Honoratus of Lerins, St. Amator, and St. Germanus of Auxerre] — God knows that I used to yearn deeply for it — yet I am bound in the Spirit, who witnesses to me that if I should do this he would mark me as guilty; and I fear to lose the labour which I have started off — no, not I but Christ the Lord, Who bade me come and be with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord so will, and if he should guard me from every evil way, so that I may not sin in his sight.
[Then he writes of how careful he has always been to be impeccably honest with these "gentiles among whom I dwell" for fear of blaspheming the name of God.]
49. . . . Though I be rude [perhaps he means clumsy?] in all things, still I have sought in some degree to keep watch over myself, both for the Christian brethren and the virgins of Christ and the devout women who used of their own free will present me with their little gifts and threw on the altars various of their adornments, which I delivered back to them. And they were scandalized against me because I acted thus. But I did it out of my hope of immortality, that I might keep myself cautiously in all things, that the heathen for one reason or another might accept me or the ministry of my service, and that I should not, even in the smallest detail, give pretext to the unbelievers to defame and disparage.
50. Maybe, then, when I baptized so many thousands of men, I hoped from any one of them even as much as the half of scruple? [A scruple is the smallest Roman unit of weight.] Tell me and I shall restore it to you. Or when my trivial self had been the Lord's instrument for the ordaining of clergy on all sides, and I gave them my ministrations for nothing, if I required from any one of them even the price of my shoe, tell it against me and I shall restore you the price and more.
51. I spent for you that they might receive me; and both among you and wherever I traveled for your sake, through many dangers, even to outlying regions beyond which no man, and where nobody had ever come to baptize or ordain clergy or confirm the folk, I have, by God's bounty, done everything diligently and joyfully for your salvation.
52. At times I used to give presents to the kings besides the wages I paid their sons, who went round with me; and yet they seized me once with my companions. And on that day they most eagerly desired to slaughter me; but the time was not yet come. Everything which they found upon us they plundered, and myself they bound with irons; and on the fourteenth day the Lord freed me from their power; and whatever was our property was restored to us for God's sake and the sake of the near friends whom we had provided beforehand.
53. You know also from your own experience how much I paid out to those who were Judges throughout all the districts which I more regularly visited; for I calculate that I distributed to them not less than the price of fifteen men, so that you might enjoy me and I might enjoy you ever in God. I do not regret it, nor consider it enough. Still I spend and will spend more. The Lord is mighty to grant me afterwards to be myself spent for your souls.
55. But I see that already in this present world I am exalted beyond measure by the Lord. And I was not worthy, nor am I such that he should grant me this gift, since I know with full certainty that poverty and affliction become me better than riches and luxuries. Why, Christ the Lord was a poor man for our sakes. But I, wretched and stricken, possess no wealth even if I should wish for it; nor do I judge mine own self, for every day I expect either a violent death or to be defrauded or to be reduced into slavery, or some such disaster. But none of these things move me, on account of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, for he rules everywhere, as the prophet says. "Cast thy care upon God, and he shall sustain thee."
59. And if I ever accomplished aught in the cause of my God whom I love, I beseech him to grant me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for his name's sake, even though I should lack burial itself, even though the dogs and the wild beasts most wretchedly should rend my corpse limb by limb or the fowls of the air should devour it. With perfect certitude, I think, if it should be my fate, I have gained a soul as profit with my body. For beyond all doubt we shall rise on that day in the crystal brightness of the sun; that is, in the Glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God and joint-heirs with Christ, conformed to his image which is to be. For of him and through him and in him we shall reign.
62. But I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever has deigned to scan and to take this writing which Patrick the Sinner, verily of no education, composed in Ireland, that none shall ever say it was my ignorance which achieved whatsoever tiny success was mine or whatever I showed in accordance with God's will; but make your judgment, and let it be most truly believed that it was the Gift of God.
And this is my Confession before I die.
Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956