It’s terribly unfortunate when Catholic feast days and holy days become secularized and disconnected from any Christian meaning. Saint Valentine’s Day becomes just “Valentine’s Day,” Easter is somehow about bunnies, and Christmas is about new electronics. And though March 17 is still known to the world as Saint Patrick’s Day, the secular representation of the day tends to focus more on leprechauns and beer than on Saint Patrick himself. Even many of us Christians have lost sight of what we should be celebrating. That’s a shame because there’s a lot to celebrate today.
Born in Britain in the latter years of the fourth century and torn from his home in a slave raid as a young man, Saint Patrick went on to be one of the greatest missionaries the Catholic Church has ever known.
Saint Patrick and Ireland—for many people, it is impossible to think of one without the other. His name is, and will always be, associated with the conversion of a nation. In the illustrious history of evangelization, few saints could make similar claims.
There are many reasons to admire Patrick: he was an orator of Ciceronian proportion, he was gifted with the ability to teach common people uncommonly difficult concepts, his physical stamina was legendary, his perseverance unwavering, and his personal sanctity was evident to all except those who blindly refused to see it.
Yet, there was one man who wasn’t all that impressed with Patrick. That man was Patrick himself. In reading his own writing, one quality perhaps rises above the rest: humility. Two of his written works survive from antiquity, Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, and both of these provide a glimpse of the Apostle of Ireland in his own words. The humility of Saint Patrick is evident in his writings. For instance, he begins his Confession: “I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many…”
To hear Patrick tell it, he was slow-witted, sinful, and unlikeable. However, an objective analysis illustrates he was brilliant, holy, and loved throughout the nation. Patrick loved the Irish people and the Irish loved Patrick. They also loved God.
In The Building of Christendom, Catholic historian Dr. Warren Carroll wrote: “The Irish proved remarkably, almost uniquely receptive to Christianity. Their conversion … was unusually rapid, unusually thorough, and above all peaceful. … The native priesthood, the druids, feared and opposed Christianity, but seem to have been almost helpless in the face of its rapid and steady advance.”
Dr. Carroll, who is well-known for his historical observation that “One man can make a difference,” could certainly point to Saint Patrick to defend his claim. Indeed, with the efforts of Saint Patrick, the Emerald Isle experienced a springtime of Christianity. Patrick’s humility, coupled with his trust in God’s love, proved a powerful combination to evangelization.
In his latter years, Patrick could look back with wonder and joy at how eager the Irish were to embrace Christianity. He writes: “So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God…”
Only by God’s grace, for sure. Yet at least part of the reason for their conversion lies in Patrick’s faith, courage, and humility.
Though he lived over fifteen centuries ago, Patrick still has a lesson to teach our world today. We have gone mad in an effort to glorify ourselves. We tend to be slow to recognize or thank others, but we are lightning fast in pointing out our own achievements and demanding recognition. In our narcissistic world of selfies, our focus often fails to reach beyond arm’s length. There is a name for all this, of course: pride.
Happily, there are ways to overcome this vice, and one of those is to consider the humility of Saint Patrick. After all he had accomplished, after all he had endured, Patrick sensed that others might conclude that he was the hero. But Patrick admonished them, assuring them that anything worthwhile that he achieved was “the gift of God.”
God wants us to be successful in our vocation and every effort that expresses His will. But in the end, we must have the humility to see that each and every one of our successes is the gift of God. We can honor Saint Patrick—indeed, we can properly celebrate today—by first recognizing that fact.
Saint Patrick, pray for us.
Further reading: The State of the Catholic Church in Ireland.