By Andrea F. PhillipsCalf deep in swampy water, I stood still, frozen in my tracks as the swish of my galoshes suddenly suggested an ominous thought, snakes.
After hurricanes Katrina/Rita/Gustave our wooded property looked like a war zone: tangled saplings, downed trees, and water oaks, like felled giants, the crevasses of their uprooted root systems now muddy pools so inviting to reptiles. Taking the dog out for a long walk that morning I hadn’t thought of this unsavory scenario.
Now, with a tingle of terror, I whispered – St. Patrick, protect us from snakes! As I called the dog, and retraced my steps, I thought, this is the first time I’ve prayed to St. Patrick…Wonder if he hears me…Wonder if the story about him banning snakes from Ireland is true…
Days later, it was my husband’s turn to take the dog into the woods, only he knew what the swampy ground could hold and grabbed a scythe.
“Come see what I killed,” I presently heard his baritone through the open door. Lying in the grass was a large Copper Head, a snake as striking as it is poisonous.
Again I shuddered. Then, What day is this? March 17…St. Patrick’s day! I understood: I heard you. Stay out of the woods.
Feeling a personal connection with the saint of miracles and lore, I jumped at the opportunity to write about him. So, since Catholic means Universal, here it comes to you, via South Louisiana, the amazing story of good St. Patrick.
Born in Kilpatrick, Scotland, Patrick’s parents were Calphurnius and Conchessa, the former from a high-ranking Roman family, holding office in Britain. Conchessa was a close relative of the great St. Martin of Tours.
At age sixteen, Irish raiders abducted Patrick and sold him into slavery to an Irish chieftain, Milchu, who used him as a shepherd.
In this solitude, the youth took solace in prayer, a habit that lit in him the fire of love of God – a fire that would later ignite the Catholic Faith in Ireland. During those years in captivity, he also learned the Celtic language, and became acquainted with the customs of the Druids, a knowledge that would later be crucial to his apostolate. After six years, admonished by an angel, Patrick escaped and returned to Britain.
Priesthood, appointment to Ireland, and Bishopric
But now, his heart was set on dedicating his life to God in the priesthood. He studied in Tours and at the famed island-monastery of Lérins, and was later ordained by the great Saint Germain. Still, Patrick’s thoughts were with Ireland, and, from time to time, he had visions of Irish children who called to him, “…come back to Ireland, and walk once more among us.”
Pope St. Celestine I, the great combater of heresies and devotee of the Blessed Virgin, dearly wished to conquer pagan Ireland for the Faith, and sent Bishop Palladius to the island. However, the Bishop was terrified of the fierce pagan chieftain, Wicklow, and soon gave up the enterprise. Hearing of the aborted mission, St. Germain sent his disciple of 18 years, Patrick, to Rome to obtain permission to evangelize Ireland. After receiving the Papal blessing, the saint returned to the green isle, now to do battle with the forces of paganism.
Patrick and his companions landed in Ireland probably around the year 433. They made their way north to the mouth of the River Boyne, where Patrick began to evangelize and performed his first miracle in defense of Our Lady and the Nativity of Jesus, converting many. At once the Druids were up in arms against the Christian intruder. One chieftain, Dilchu, tried to strike the saint with his sword, but his arm became petrified, and he joined Patrick and accepted instruction.
Patrick heard that in defiance to him, Leoghaire, the supreme monarch of Ireland, published an edict. On Easter Sunday, all households must extinguish their lights. Only at Tara, the place of the king, would a fire remain lit. All Druids and courtesans convened on Tara. They feared this messenger of Christ was beginning to win the Irish.
The fearless man of God knew that this was his opportunity to, once and for all, plant the cross in Ireland. Patrick encamped on the hill opposite Tara, and lit a huge Paschal fire rivaling that of Leoghaire.
In a panic, the Druids said to their leader, “O King, this fire which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict will blaze forever in this land unless it be, this very night, extinguished.” A dispatch of Druids and armed men was sent to Patrick’s hill and repeated attempts made to extinguish the fire but to no avail. There were also snares and assaults prepared for Patrick, all of which, by divine protection, he dodged unscathed. His powerful prayer, “St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate” is said to have been composed by him for his clash with paganism.
On Easter day, the missionary band, preceded by a youth carrying aloft the Holy Gospels, and followed by St. Patrick wearing miter and crozier, entered Tara. The Druids tried all their spells and incantations on the courageous company. After much effort, they finally succeeded in bringing darkness over the valley. Patrick prayed to the Lord, and the sun shone forth. Then, by demonic power, the Arch-Druid Lochru was lifted up in the air, striving to gain control over the saint. But at Patricks’s prayer, Lochru was dashed on the rocks.
Conversion of Ireland
On this day, Irish paganism was dealt a mortal blow. Beginning with the king, St. Patrick began to evangelize the court, soon making a convert of one of the ministers, Dubhtach. It is on this occasion that St. Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock, three leaves on a single stem, to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity to the assembled chieftains.
St. Patrick spent his life working for the complete conversion of his beloved Irish. He particularly directed his apostolate to the chieftains, knowing that if the heads were conquered, their people would follow. And thus it happened that through his untiring evangelization, supported at times by great miracles, he conquered Ireland for the Holy Catholic Faith. Churches and monasteries arose, and religious orders were founded. St. Patrick is said to have consecrated 350 bishops.
Saint Patrick died on March 17, 493. His remains were wrapped in a shroud by St. Brigid. Bishops, clergy and faithful from all parts crowded around to offer due honor to the Father of their Faith. According to ancient records, for several days a light shone around his bier. The cathedral of Down was build on his grave.
In my research about our great saint, I was not able to substantiate the popular claim that he expelled all snakes from Ireland. The claim seems to be a pious legend, lost in the mist of time. - Andrea F. Phillips, author
First Photo by: Andreas F. Borchert
Shamrock Emblem by: Setanta Saki
The prayer, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, mentioned in the text is also found here