There are so many stories about Ireland's St. Patrick, it hard to separate the myths from reality. Even historians disagree on much of what happened in his life. It seems few can agree on either the exact date of his birth or his death. They do agree he was born about 386 A.D. (Anno Domini) or C.E. (Common Era), and died about 461. In between, about the only written records of his existence are among two he penned himself. Noted for their humble voice, they include the autobiographical Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus.
It is said that Patrick was born in Britain, either in England, present day Scotland or Wales with the name, Maewyn Succat. That's unusual since surnames were rarely used in those days. If so, the name, Patrick was either adopted during his religious journeys or at his ordination.
While his father, Calphuirnius, was a deacon from a Roman family of high standing, his mother, Conchessa, was a close relative of the great patron Saint Martin of Tours. Patrick's grandfather, Pontius, was also a member of the clergy. Surprisingly, though, Patrick himself was not raised with a strong emphasis on religion. Education was not particularly stressed during his childhood. Later in life this would become a source of embarrassment for him as he wrote in his Confessio, “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”
This man, who would come to be known as St. Patrick, apostle of Ireland, was captured by pirates as a child and then brought to Ireland and sold into slavery in Dalriada. There his job was tending sheep. It was during his slavery there that he was called to Christianity.
During his six years of captivity, Patrick came to view his enslavement as God testing his faith and he became deeply devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. In a vision, he saw the children of pagan Ireland reaching out to him. It was then that he grew increasingly determined to convert the Irish to Christianity.
After six years of enslavement, the idea of escaping came to Patrick in a dream. A voice promised him he would find his way home to Britain. Eager to see the dream become reality, Patrick convinced sailors to let him board their ship to escape his captors. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the vessel in France and wandered. In the process, Patrick ultimately became reunited with his family. A free man once again, he went to Auxerre, France, where he studied and entered the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary St. Germain.
As time passed, he never lost sight of his vision to convert Ireland to Christianity. In 432, as a bishop, he was sent by Pope Celestine I to Ireland. His mission was to spread the gospel to non-believers while also providing support to the small community of Christians already living there.
Recognizing the history of spiritual practices already in place, nature-oriented pagan rituals were incorporated into church practices. It is believed that Patrick may have introduced the Celtic cross, which combined a native sun-worshiping symbology with that of the Christian cross.
St. Patrick died circa 461 in Saul, Ireland, and is said to have been buried in the nearby town of Downpatrick, County Down. Although we celebrate March 17 in his memory, it is neither the date of his birth nor of his death. It's simply his feast day.
He may be recognized as the patron saint of Ireland, but Patrick was never actually canonized by the Catholic Church. This is simply due to the era in which he lived. During the first millennium, there was no formal beatification or canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church.
After becoming a priest and helping to spread Christianity throughout Ireland, Patrick was likely proclaimed a saint by popular acclaim.
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