Monday, March 17, 2014

Patrick of Ireland

Our preacher at Choral Evensong Sunday afternoon, March 16, was our good friend the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright--Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church and Priest-in-Charge of Episcopal Ministry at the University of Pittsburgh.  Propers for the service were for Patrick of Ireland: First Thessalonians 2: 2-12, and Matthew 28: 16-20.

There was a book in the shops a few years ago called ‘How the Irish saved
Civilization’. It grabbed a lot of people’s attention by its audacious
claim, although the title wasn’t quite true—but there was enough truth in it
that no one would blame the author for catching people’s attention with it.
Well, anything the Irish can do, the English can do too; so I’m going to say
that Patrick was an English Protestant who saved the Irish! Not quite true,
but true enough that I hope I won’t be blamed for getting your attention
that way either.

The weakest part of my claim is that he was English: Patrick was born
sometime around the year 400 AD, in what is now England, but it really isn’t
fair to use that name at that period. It was then a province of the Roman
Empire called Britanniae. Patrick almost certainly thought of himself as a
Roman, a citizen of the Empire, although Roman protection was withdrawn from
Britain when he was still a boy. He was born into an important family in a
small and unimportant town. He refers to himself as ‘noble’, and says that
his father was a Decurion, a member of the local governing body. He was also
born into a Christian family, indeed into an ecclesiastical family. His
father was a deacon as well as a decurion, and his grandfather was a priest.
Patrick, however, was careless of spiritual things in his youth: ‘we
departed from God, and we kept not His precepts,’ he tells us of himself and
his friends.

From the coast near his home, you could see across to Ireland, which was not
part of the Empire, and was considered the home of barbarians. When he was
sixteen, a boatload of Irish warriors came ashore, and captured him and many
others and took them back to Ireland to be sold as slaves. Patrick ended up
at a little village in the north-west, and was given the job of looking
after his owner’s cattle. He was sure he had been taken into slavery as
punishment by God for his ‘departure’ from Him, and he began to take
spiritual matters seriously. He tells us that he prayed hundreds of times a
day. After a few years, a dream came to him in which he heard God say,
‘because of your fasting, you shall soon go home.’ A few nights later he had
another dream, in which he heard God say that his ship was now ready. So
Patrick, now 22, ran away to find his ship. When he got to the coast he
found a ship, just getting ready to set sail. After a bit of confusion, they
took him to France, where he seems to have stayed about three years,
studying Christianity, and was perhaps ordained to the diaconate there. From
there he eventually was able to get back to his family in England.

But not long after he returned home, he had another dream. In this dream he
saw a man from Ireland with hundreds of letters addressed to him. He opened
one, and saw that it was headed ‘The voice of the Irish’. As he looked at
the words, he could hear voices, and they were the voices of the people he
had known in Ireland, and they were ‘crying as though with one voice, “We
beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.”’ He realised that this
was not because of any personal quality of his, but because they wanted the
faith that he had come to have while a slave in Ireland. He tells us that he
was ‘stung with remorse’ at his absence from them, and he went back to
Ireland, never to leave it again. He is assumed to have been consecrated as
a bishop before going, but only because his devotees could not imagine
anything else; he himself says only ‘I am a bishop, appointed by God, in
Ireland. I consider that I have received what I am from God,’ which could
mean many different things. Once there, he preached the gospel, made
converts, organized them into churches, and raised up local leadership
everywhere. Within 200 years, he was the almost legendary founder of the
Irish church, which became an institution of great importance for European
history—not quite ‘saving civilization’, but certainly functioning as a
major factor in the transmission of civilization during Europe’s dark ages,
and (more importantly) sending evangelists to preach the gospel in Scotland,
England, and the European mainland. Patrick brought the word of salvation to
the Irish, through which God saved their souls, so even if it’s not quite
true that he was English, he was certainly God’s instrument to save the

My third claim, that Patrick was a Protestant, will take a little longer to
explain than these other two. Protestants, of course, are those who believe
that the Bible, the word of God, has an authority higher than the traditions
of the church, no matter how venerable, an authority higher than its current
opinions, no matter how sensible. You may not have any trouble accepting
that Patrick believed the Bible to have that authority; what you may find
harder to believe is that the church of his day did not believe in
evangelising Barbarians like the Irish, and it was over that issue that
Patrick defied the church and obeyed the higher authority of the Word of

During the first five centuries AD, the Roman Empire believed itself to be
the civilized world, with nothing outside it except savagery. Now it’s true
that the Romans knew about India and China, and they were aware that those
cultures were civilized even in the Roman sense of the word, but they were
so far away that they did not really enter into the thinking of the average
citizen of the Empire. As far as day to day life was concerned, there was
the Empire, civilization, and beyond its borders there was nothing but
savagery. Within the Empire there were cities full of luxurious houses,
stately public buildings, shops, libraries, theatres, paved roads stretching
for hundreds of miles linking the great cities and the smaller towns. There
were differences from one place to another, but the differences were less
important than the similarities, and in all important respects, there was a
single civilization, Romanitas, Roman-ness. Outside the Empire there was
just desert to the south and east, populated by strange nomadic tribes who
didn’t stay in one place long enough to acquire civilisation; forests full
of wild animals to the north, populated by the ‘barbarians’— savages whose
language sounded like ‘bar bar bar’, and who didn’t have the mental capacity
to be civilised. To the west there were a few rocky islands on the edge of
the endless sea with small civilised communities in the south and barbarians
in the north.

When Christianity settled down in this setting, it began to acquire this
attitude. In the very beginning, Christianity spread in Jewish society, but
by the end of the 1st century, there were far more gentile, ie Roman
Christians than Jewish ones, and the number of Jewish ones was declining. By
the end of the 2nd century, Christianity was basically a Roman religion,
although pockets of Jewish Christianity survived for another couple of
centuries in some places.

After the period of the apostles, not only there was no attempt by the
church to spread the gospel outside the Empire, but by the 4th century the
church came to believe that it would be wrong to try. ‘Roman and barbarian
are as distinct from one another as are four-footed beasts from humans’,
wrote the Christian Prudentius around the year 390. Once the gospel had been
preached throughout the Roman Empire, wrote another Christian, Hesychius in
418, the command to preach the gospel to all nations had been fulfilled, and
further evangelism was useless, because Christ’s return was imminent. The
church believed it would not survive the attempt: ‘The priesthood… does not
exist among barbarian peoples… it would not be safe if it did,’ wrote Bishop
Optatus of Milevis in 360 or so.

Christianity did spread outside the Empire, but it did so as people from the
Empire were required by business or military service to live outside the
Empire. They continued to live as Christians, they raised their children as
Christians, and eventually there might be enough of them in a particular
place that they would write back to the church in the Empire and ask for
clergy to be sent to them so that they could participate in the full life of
the church. There was even such a church in Ireland, at the other end of the
island, before Patrick, under a bishop named Palladius. But Palladius would
not have dreamed of spreading the gospel elsewhere in Ireland.

St Augustine was the first to consider the possibility that such work should
be undertaken. He lived in the days when Rome was finally sacked by
barbarian soldiers, after a thousand years of being the richest and most
powerful city on the face of the earth. He wrote a book about it called the
‘City of God’, and in that book he argued that Christians were in fact
strangers and sojourners even in the civilization of the Roman Empire. And
he wrote a reply to Hesychius saying that the gospel had not been proclaimed
to all nations if it had not been proclaimed to the barbarians too. But to
Augustine it remained a theoretical idea; although a bishop in north Africa,
with barbarian tribes living in the desert to the south, Augustine never
sent an evangelist to them, any more than Palladius sent an evangelist to
the barbarians in the northern part of Ireland. A contemporary of Augustine,
a man known as Prosper of Aquitaine, took up Augustine’s ideas in a book
called De Vocatione Omnium Gentium, ‘On the Calling of all Nations’, but he
specifically ruled out any active evangelism to them; he argued that God
would save them without human intervention. Patrick’s family, and the church
of his home town, tried to stop him going. Only a century after Patrick’s
time did the church begin a serious mission to the Barbarians, sending
Augustine to Canterbury to convert the Anglo-Saxons—and even that was
motivated as much by the desire to get there before the Irish did as by
Jesus’s commission to the church.

So Patrick was the first we know of to call the church to return to Biblical
teaching, and to take the gospel to barbarians in the full conviction that
God desired their salvation too. And he specifically quoted Scripture as
justifying, even insisting that he do so, citing among others the Great
Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel. And he did so despite a personal
experience that might have driven him to hate barbarians, and with which all
of us would have sympathized. And that’s the great example that Patrick
provides for us: someone who compared what he read in God’s word with what
he saw in the church, and said, ‘It’s time we started living the way God
wants us to.’ There really is a sense in which Patrick can be seen as an
early Protestant—he’s certainly one of the first to point out that the
church of his day had wandered from the task God gave it, and that it should
get back to it. If the saints do pray for those of us still in this life,
Patrick’s prayers are with all those in our church who have compared the
teaching of the church with the teaching of God’s word and seen that we have
departed from God’s word, and are hoping, perhaps even working, for
obedience like Patrick’s. May we all be among them, and may God prosper us
as He prospered the work of Patrick.

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