Saint Patrick, The Darkness and The Dawn

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.

When Caesar’s sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.

G. K. Chesterton

With all the fun and frivolity that has become associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, we lose sight of the man and of the saint.  Saint Patrick was a pivotal figure, not only in the history of Ireland, but also in the history of Western Europe and in the history of the Catholic Church.  He is also very much a saint for our time.

The Fifth Century, the time of Saint Patrick, was a time of disaster for both the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.  Barbarian invasions rent and destroyed the Empire in Western Europe and Africa, and the Barbarians, when they were not pagan, were adherents of the Arian heresy.  The Church had spent three centuries spreading throughout the Empire and had eventually become the faith of the Empire.  Now all of that painful progress seemed undone as the Empire died and the Church seemed mortally wounded.  In Patrick’s native Britain, by the end of his life, pagan Germanic hordes had invaded and were well on their way to destroying the Faith throughout most of that island.  The lights of faith and learning seemed to be going out forever.

In this chaotic darkness, Patrick, a man on fire with the love of Christ, was commissioned by Pope Celestine I to erect the Cross in a pagan land.  In the face of defeat and despair, the Church went on the offensive.  The Pope had already sent Saint Palladius in 431 to Ireland as the first bishop of Ireland, but the emerald isle remained overwhelmingly pagan.  Saint Patrick would be the second bishop of Ireland, as he embarked upon a lifelong mission to every Irish man, woman and child who could hear his voice.  Tireless and fearless, he endured captivity no fewer than 12 times as he preached the Gospel throughout Ireland.  Wherever he went he established churches and ordained priests.  The results of his efforts Saint Patrick summed up in his Confession:

I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon a after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: ‘To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, “Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.”’ And again: ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth.’

Saint Patrick found Ireland almost totally pagan, he left it almost totally Catholic, a Faith that the Irish cherished and spread throughout Western Europe in the centuries to come as a galaxy of Irish saints and scholars aided in the revival of the Faith and of learning throughout what was to become Christendom.

It is striking how often in times of crisis the Church has gone on the offensive.  Urban II launching the  crusading movement which delayed by centuries the march of Islam into Europe;   at the time of the Reformation, the Church sending out missionaries to convert the New World;   the destruction of the Papal States in the Nineteenth Century occurring at the same time that Vatican I helped establish a new spiritual unity in the Church with the papacy enjoying a power and prestige unknown for centuries.

In our day we also live in a time of Crisis.  We live at a time when what Saint Patrick helped to create, Christendom, has been destroyed, the ending of a process that began with the Reformation.  In Ireland the Faith seems to be dying, as the Irish desert Catholicism in droves, all but one of the seminaries are closed, and the Church in Ireland is reeling from a self-inflicted wound of predatory and abusive priests, brothers, sisters and nuns, and the bishops who protected them.  Ireland, for long one of the few bright spots for Catholicism in Europe in the past few decades, is now a prime example of the de-Christianization of an entire continent.

It is time for the Church to take the offensive, a process that is beginning.  The old religious orders that have lost the Faith and their way are dying.  That is a healthy development;  they should die if they are beyond restoration and reform.  New orthodox orders are beginning to be formed.  Priests, and religious, overflowing with love of Christ and the Faith are beginning to make their voices heard.  Pope Benedict has given effective leadership to this movement.  Some Church leaders are beginning to realize the truth that de-Christianized populations are ripe for strong missionary efforts, the message of Christ being new and fresh to them.

It is hard living in a time like this when we see the Faith under assault and so many Catholics in despair, but such is our lot.  It is glorious to live in a time when the Church rises from apparent defeat and astonishes the world by becoming stronger than ever, living out the prophecy of Christ that the gates of Hell will not prevail against her.  Saint Patrick in his day could see beyond the disasters of his age, and the gathering gloom of the time in which he lived, and laid the foundation for a new and glorious morning for the Church.  That is our task today.  Let us be about it.

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3 Responses to Saint Patrick, The Darkness and The Dawn

  1. T. Shaw says:

    St. Patrick’s Confessions, beginning:

    1. I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

    2 And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

    3 Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.

    The “Cry of the Deer”:

    Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
    Christ on my right, Christ on my left
    Christ when I lay down, Christ when I sit down,
    Christ when I arise
    Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
    Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
    Christ in every eye that sees me
    Christ in every ear that hears me.

    On St. Patrick’s Day, this prayer was recited outside of every Irish Catholic Church.

  2. Elaine Krewer says:

    “For the end of the world was long ago…”

    It’s really easy to forget that; with the lack of historical perspective people have today, every crisis seems to be the “worst ever”. Also, our faith teaches us that even the REAL end of the world isn’t the “end of the world” 🙂

  3. American Knight says:

    It is so funny, being of Phoenician descent I don’t look Irish and although I lived in England for some time, I’ve never been to Ireland. When I get excited about St. Patrick’s Day people comment, “but you’re not Irish” – well neither was he. He was born in Scotland. Yet, we are both Catholic. And like any good Catholic, we are Catholic first.

    I especially like this saint (correct me if I am in error please) because he either developed or popularized private confession. Thank God for that.

    I was away for 34 years and I don’t think I could have given that confession face to face with anyone.

    Hey, do I have to be a Palestinian Jew to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day this Friday? 🙂

    Thanks for the video.

    I am a witness to the attraction of Jesus and His Church in times of chaos. I was a mess before I came back to the ancient (or is that new?) faith. OK, I’m still a mess, but at least now I am aware of it. The Light is a stark contrast against the darkness, especially when it gets darker.

    The human state is always dramatic; we are the prize between good and evil after all. That drama is often in crisis and we are about to enter stage III crisis mode especially after this weekend’s Demon-pass. Our Church thrives on crisis. If I am not mistaken this Church was born of the wounded side of our Founder after creatures killed the Creator – can’t have much more of a crisis than that.

    Gates are defensive structures – it is quite difficult to use a gate as an offensive tool. Hell’s gates not prevailing against the Church is an invitation for her to attack.

    Our Lady of Victory, ora pro nobis.

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