The world of books is as deep as it is wonderous. It’s amazing how books written centuries ago can still start a spark in our modern minds. C.S. Lewis once said, “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” We recently asked our writing team to consider what book, not published in the last century, has most impacted their life? Today, Fr. Billy Swan discusses a writing from one of the greatest evangelists in Catholic history, St. Patrick’s Confessio.
The older I get the more strongly I believe in divine providence. St Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) once wrote that ‘the gifts God bestows on us are not always the most apparent to the senses, nor the most agreeable, nor the most sought after, but the most necessary and solid’ (Abandonment to Divine Providence). One example of such gifts of God are books we read at certain points in our lives that leave an indelible mark and have great influence. They may not be the best books ever written or be best known but are the ones God wants us to read for they contain a message He wants us to hear at the time we read them.
For me, this book was the Confessio of St Patrick of Ireland. Written in the late fifth century, it is a very short book in which Patrick tells the story of his life. The Confessio is an autobiographical account of Patrick’s life that focuses on how he interpreted the events of that life through the lens of his Christian faith. Similar to Augustine’s Confessions that was written about a century beforehand, the book is a confession of unworthiness, faith and gratitude to God for all the graces and blessings he has received. It details how he recognised the saving hand of God at work in all the events of his life that was about to end. He decided to write because he wanted to bequeath a spiritual testimony as part of his legacy so that, in his own words ‘I might leave something of value to the many thousands of people I have baptised in the Lord’.
In his Confessio, Patrick tells his audience that as a young boy he lived on the west cost of Britain when, aged sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and forced to work in slavery on the Irish west coast. This was a time of great suffering for Patrick but an experience that facilitated his conversion to God as he turned to prayer. In his own words, it was a time in which ‘the Spirit was fervent in me’ and a time when he came to know God as Father. After six years, he managed to escape back to Britain and was joyfully reunited with his family who begged him never to leave again. It was a promise he could not keep for shortly after he returned home, a voice persisted in his heart that he recognised as ‘the voice of the Irish’ begging him to ‘walk once again among us O holy boy’. Patrick could not ignore this call and eventually returned to Ireland, the country he referred to as ‘the land of my captivity’. There he became an Apostle of the Good News of Jesus Christ to a pagan people who had stolen his childhood. Yet despite the injustice committed against him, Patrick movingly refers to the ‘holy mercy that arises in my heart which I show towards this people who once took me prisoner’. Looking back on his mission he witnesses to its success. He speaks of thousands of the Irish accepting the faith and being baptised. Within a few centuries, Christianity had established itself culturally in Ireland so effectively that it became known as ‘the land of saints and scholars’. The nation which had received the faith from heroic missionaries like St Patrick, now became a missionary nation itself with thousands of Irish men and women leaving Ireland to spread the faith across Europe and restore hope in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. In later centuries, thousands would also leave Ireland because of hunger, poverty and the search for a better life. Many of these emigrants brought with them a vibrant Christian faith that embedded itself in the new countries they called home. For this reason, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the world as the contribution of Irish emigrants and missionaries is rightly honoured.
I remember first hearing the story of Patrick as a child at school as the teacher recalled his life each year around the 17th of March. The story had a powerful impact on our young minds. Even in grade school, it was impossible not to get the point – that we are Christians today because of the heroic faith of St Patrick who, along with other missionaries, brought the Christian faith to our nation. We were left in no doubt that we were indebted to these people and were the latest generation to receive the gift of faith that we in turn had the duty to hand on to our children. It made us realise that the annual celebration of St Patrick’s Day was much more than parades and costumes but the living tradition of faith that we had received because of Patrick’s response to God’s call to bring us the Good News of Jesus Christ. Patrick’s story ignited something within us – a connection with him, a pride, a gratitude, a sense of identity and a clarity of purpose. We were the generation who represented the latest link in a chain of living faith that went back to him.
When I resumed further studies as a priest several years later and searched for a theme for my doctorate, I was drawn to the collection of sources of early Irish Christianity. It was then that I rediscovered St Patrick’s Confessio and began to give it serious study and reflection. I began to compare his writings to other Church Fathers and to compare their interpretation of the fundamentals of the faith. I began to appreciate how Patrick tells us his story in the language of Scripture or the language of God. I noticed how the Christian faith that Patrick brought us was Trinitarian from the outset and how faith in the Triune God led to social and ecclesial unity among the Irish who were previously divided into tribes, many of them at war with each other. I was hooked. The more I studied, the more the text absorbed me and convinced me of its relevance for the new evangelization today. At the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said that ‘the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers, but at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forums of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic Apostolate’. On re-discovering Patrick’s story, I became convinced that his patrimony could help and inspire all Christians to evangelize these new forums that Pope John encouraged the Church to explore.
Patrick’s story continues to be inspirational for it addresses the questions of life and human existence that still remain today. Who is God and who are we? What is God’s plan for me and for the world? How do I contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom? If God is good, how do I interpret acts of grave injustice? As one who suffered a grave injustice, Patrick’s life testifies to how God brings good from situations of evil and how a poor slave could be the one chosen by God to bring the faith to a nation. Patrick wonderfully witnesses to mercy and forgiveness when he returns to evangelize the people who had captured him as slave. As a priest he inspires me when he speaks of his mission as ‘this holy and wonderful work’ and of his ‘pastoral care for the salvation of others’. He describes his preaching as ‘acquiring people for God’ and of dedicating himself to the Irish ‘lovingly and joyfully for their salvation’. At this time of opportunity for evangelization, what the story of Patrick teaches us is that mission matters. God in his freedom did not have to involve us in his work of salvation but choose to do so. He desires that all peoples share fully in his divine life and asks us to help offer what he wants to give. God has given us the dignity of being partners with him in bringing his saving love to the ends of the earth. Because of Patrick’s response to God’s call, thousands were brought to salvation through the Christian faith. He teaches us that our response to God’s call also contributes uniquely to the saving mission of the Church that seeks to make Christ known and loved throughout the world. In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, ‘God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission’.
In 1979 during his visit to Ireland, Saint John Paul II asked us to: ‘Remember Saint Patrick. Remember what the fidelity of just one man has meant for Ireland and the world’ (Address to Seminarians, Maynooth, 1st Oct.). Patrick’s story is much more than one individual’s faith. Rather he re-proposes the Christian vision to the world, invites us to become part of it and to respond generously to God’s call as he did. The story of his life told in his Confessio is a window that allows us to see the grace of God triumphant in a human life in a way that effected millions. It leaves us in no doubt about the importance of our contribution to the mission of evangelization in our time. Should we respond to our unique calling to further the mission of the Gospel, may we join with St Patrick who exclaimed in gratitude and wonder: ‘Who am I Lord…that you have co-operated with me with such divine power? Thus today I constantly praise and glorify your name’.
St Patrick’s Confessio is available for free at www.confessio.ie