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Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Magnus Sucatus Patricius - Bishop and Missionary

The man known in his own time by the names Magnus Sucatus Patricius died this day in 461, probably aged around 76. He was born in Britain around 385 of wealthy landed parents and seized as a slave in a raid which descended on his family's villa in around 401 when he was not quite 16. He is perhaps best known by the legends that have grown around him, yet he would very likely be appalled at these same legends for he was a modest man - one who wept at the death of the very master who had abused him as a slave. He was also a remakable and truly great man and it has to be the supreme irony that we know of him possibly only because Church politics in the early Middle Ages caused the Abbots of Armagh to dig deep within their records and to unearth two of the most remarkable documents to survive anywhere in Britain or Ireland from what we now call the late Roman Period or the Dark Ages.

The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus is in every sense of the word an Excommunication issued by a man moved by horror and grief, a man who knew what slavery meant to the men and women of his flock who had been seized by the Soldiers in his letter. A man who railed against the practice of slavery in an age when it was considered normal to enslave anyone who could not resist your force of arms. The second is more telling because it is his Declaration of Faith and exposition of his ministry. It is from that that we learn of his own seizure and six years as a slave in Ireland, of the misery he suffered during those six years and of his resolve which saw him overcome opposition from the Church itself to become the first Missionary Bishop since St Paul.

Patrick, the man, awed the Irish who had held him as a slave. They gave him the nickname "Naofa buachaill" or "Holy Boy" to mock his faith and his prayers, but he turned that into a weapon, one they could not overcome with violence or blandishment. He saw himself as God's slave and laughed at anyone who threatened to deprive him of his freedom with the answer - "You cannot, for I have none, I am the slave of God." Through this he won the respect and then the hearts of all who encountered him. Patrick, the Bishop, wasn't popular with his fellow bishops in Britain or in Rome. He was a maverick, one who refused to play the political games and got on with tending the people God had entrusted to him.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me -
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Patrick was not a Monk, nor did he found monasteries, those came after his death. The monastics claimed him, yet he founded churches in villages (Duns or Raths in the Irish of his time) and gave communities Bishops and Presbyters to lead them and minister too them. After his death these gradually became monastic communities with Abbots taking ascendancy over the Bishops and the tradition that he was a monk grew to support this take over of the church by the ecclesiastics. If you went to look for Patrick in his own time or in a service you would have to have him pointed out as he never wore a mitre (They came much later - around 1100) or carried a crook or crozier and dressed in the ordinary clothes of the people he worked amongst. This is supported by one of the legends that speaks of a would be assassin being unable to tell the Saint apart from his charioteer.

You will not find Patrick in any list of those beatified by any Pope, nor will you find his name among those appointed Bishop by the Popes of his time, most likely because his patron was St Germanus of Auxerre and not Celestine of Rome. Patrick was declared Saint by those who knew and loved him, by those who carried on his work for the gospel with unswerving love and loyalty and one day I hope to be permitted to sit at his feet and thank him for the inspiration he has given me and millions of others. Yes, I am wearing something green. No, I will not be parading waving any national flags, nor will I be drinking any green beer. I may raise a glass of fine Irish Whiskey to the man I would like to meet more than any other in this life or the next. I am celebrating his feast in prayer and worship as he would wish me to.

2 comments:

  1. I didn't even make a conscious decision to wear green and ended up wearing the right colour! I'm proud to be Irish, but I feel strange about celebrating St Patrick's Day in London when St George's Day is so conspicuously ignored, so I limited myself to a green shirt.

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  2. Well done! I'm sure the Saint himself was with you.

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