Was St. Patrick Catholic?
by James Akin
Patrick was born in 385 western Great Britain into a high-ranking Roman Christian family; he died in Ireland in 461, though some accounts put his death later. His grandfather was a priest and his father–Calpurnius–was a deacon, as well as prosperous nobleman and local Roman official. Patrick’s native language was Latin.
His birth name was, reportedly, Maewyn, and the Latin name Patercius (Gaelicized to “Patrick” by the Irish) was given to him by Pope Celestine just before his mission to Ireland, as a token of the fruitfulness of his future mission, which would make him the pater civium (father of the people) of the Irish race.
He writes that as youths he and his companions “turned away from God, and did not keep his commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation” (Conf. 1). But when he was sixteen he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery, where he served as a shepherd. This revolutionized his life; his faith and zeal for God were ignited, and he spent much time praying and fasting. After six years, he escaped, being led by private revelations along a safe route back to Britain. Afterwards, he was commissioned in another private revelation to serve as a missionary to Ireland.
To prepare, he traveled to France and spent around two decades as a monk—studying, praying, and practicing penance. He was ordained to the priesthood, and in 432 was sent to Ireland to serve St. Palladius, who had been consecrated bishop and sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine. When Palladius died on a trip to Britain, Patrick was chosen as his successor and was consecrated bishop by St. Germanus, the papal representative overseeing the Irish mission.
Patrick experienced enormous success in converting the Irish, and three assistant bishops from France were sent to help him, among them St. Sechnall (aka Secundinus). Within his generation the Irish had been transformed by God’s grace into a Christian (and Catholic) people.
In 441 Patrick went to Rome to seek special approval of his ministry in Ireland, and the newly-elected Pope Leo the Great personally confirmed Patrick’s full adherence to the Catholic faith. This is significant since some today assert that Patrick was not Catholic. In this country, the challenge is mainly made by Irish Americans who have abandoned the Church for Protestantism and wish to co-opt Patrick and represent him as a non-Catholic figure.
This is an impossible task, as Patrick was a Latin-speaking Roman noble, grandson of a Catholic priest, son of a minor official of the Roman empire, who had repeated private revelations, practiced penance, spent two decades as a monk, was ordained a priest and sent to serve on the papal mission to Ireland, was then ordained bishop by a papal representative, and had his fidelity to Catholic teaching specially confirmed by Pope Leo the Great (of whom the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon cried “Peter has spoken through Leo!”). He described himself as a Catholic, and a list of canons he drew up for the Irish church orders that any dispute not resolved on a local level was to be forwarded to Rome for decision.
The two writings from his pen that survive—his Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus—are both in Latin, and both attest to his Catholic faith. The Letter—which Patrick wrote in a blazing fury after some of his newly baptized converts had been slaughtered during a raid by a British ruler—records his belief in the episcopacy, the ministerial priesthood, confirmation, the value of monks and nuns, purgatory, priestly absolution, and “doing hard penance” (the last two, he said the murdering soldiers needed). His later Confession has a mild tone (not being a response to a massacre) and mentions many of the same Catholic distinctives, as well as fasting, loss of salvation, and Patrick’s many private revelations. Another important source is a Latin hymn written in praise of him by his assistant bishop Sechnall, who records many of Patrick’s beliefs, among them the sacrifice of the Mass, merits, the fact the Church is built on Peter, and baptismal regeneration.
Any disgruntled claims that Patrick was not Catholic are just blarney.
(A version of this article appears in the March 1997 issue of This Rock magazine.)
- “I, Patrick, the sinner, am the most rustic and the least of all the faithful . . . had for my father Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a priest, who belonged to the village of Bannavem Taberniae. . . . At that time I was barely sixteen years of age . . . and I was led into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of persons, in accordance with our deserts, for we turned away from God, and kept not his commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who were wont to admonish us for our salvation” (Confession of St. Patrick 1 [A.D. 452]).
- “And there truly [in Ireland] one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me, ‘You fast well; soon you will go to your fatherland.’ And again, after I very short time, I heard the heavenly voice saying to me, ‘Lo, your ship is ready.’ And it was not near at hand, but was distant, perhaps two hundred miles. And I had never been there, nor did I know any person living there. And thereupon I shortly took 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 met with nothing to alarm me until I reached that ship” (ibid., 17 [A.D. 452]).
- “And once more, after a few years, I was in Britain with my family. . . . And there indeed I saw in a vision of the night a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with countless letters. He gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter, which was entitled ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And while I was reading aloud the beginning of the letter, I thought that at that very moment I heard the voices of those who dwelt beside the Wood of Foclut [in Ireland], which is nigh unto the Western Sea. And thus they cried, as with one mouth, ‘We beseech you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us!” (ibid., 23).
- “And especially there was one blessed lady of Scotic birth, of noble rank, and most beautiful, of full age [i.e., an adult], who I had baptized. And after a few days she came to us for a special counsel. She told us in confidence that she had received a message from God, and it admonished her to become a virgin of Christ [i.e. a nun] and so come nearer to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day afterwards, most admirably and most eagerly she embraced that which all virgins of Christ do” (ibid., 42).
- “Let those who will, laugh and mock. I shall not be silent nor conceal the signs and wonders which were shown to me by the Lord many years before they came to pass, since he knows all things even before the world’s beginnings” (ibid., 45).
- “I, Patrick, the sinner, unlearned as everybody knows, avow that I have been established a bishop in Ireland. Most assuredly I believe that I have received from God what I am. And so I dwell in the midst of barbarous heaths, a stranger and an exile for the love of God” (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 1 [A.D. 452]).
- “[The murderer] Coroticus . . . fears neither God nor his priests, whom he [God] chose and to whom he granted that highest, divine, and sublime power, that whom they should bind on earth should be bound in heaven” (ibid., 6 [A.D. 452]).
- “Hear, all you who love God, the holy merits of Patrick the bishop, a man blessed in Christ; how, for his good deeds, he is likened unto the angels and, for his perfect life, he is comparable to the apostles” (Hymn in Praise of St. Patrick 1 [A.D. 444]).
- “Steadfast in the fear of God, and in faith immovable, upon [St. Patrick] as upon Peter the [Irish] church is built; and he has been allotted his apostleship by God; against him the gates of hell prevail not” (ibid., 3 [A.D. 444]).
- “[St. Patrick] boldly proclaims to the [Irish] tribes the Name of the Lord, to whom he gives the eternal grace of the laver of salvation; for their offenses he prays daily unto God; for them also he offers up to God worthy sacrifices” (ibid., 13 [A.D. 444]).