Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Conversion of Saint Patrick

Not many people have read my monthly column in Magnificat for the nearly nine years that it has been appearing. So it can only be useful to re-present some of the older “conversion stories” on this blog, and even make revisions here and there (as I contemplate what form of book – or series of books – might serve as a worthwhile vehicle for gathering together, rendering accessible in one place, and perhaps even expanding this considerable body of writing and the mountain of research it represents).

And, since it’s “that-time-of-year-again,” I shall take advantage of the circumstances to tell the story of the conversion of Saint Patrick, based on the article that was published in Magnificat back in 2015:

Saint Patrick, the great Apostle of Ireland in the fifth century, was himself a “convert.” In his youth he ignored God, but in his days of slavery, Patrick cried out to God in his loneliness and found him in Christ. Then it was Christ again who called out to him through the searching hearts of the unknown people who lived west of Britain, at the edge of the world.

In his brief Confessions, St. Patrick says that he grew up as an “unbeliever.” He was from a wealthy family in Roman Britain and his forebears were Christians. But although the priests of the Church tried to “remind us of our salvation” (Confessions, 1) Patrick and his companions paid no attention to God and lived according to their own wishes.

These circumstances changed, however, when he was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish chief. Patrick’s comfortable and dissolute life was suddenly over, and instead he found himself impoverished and alone, shepherding his master’s flock in a wild and strange land. But for Patrick this isolation was a time of grace.

Although he called himself an unbeliever in his early days, something of the Gospel must have gotten through to him; the words of the priests who preached and exhorted the people of his homeland remained in his memory. There must have been something in the original testimony he had received, even though he had scoffed at it – something must have impressed itself upon him with a vitality of its own, sufficient to awaken in his days of tribulation. His own baptism and the ministry of the Church planted seeds of grace and awareness of God that were destined to sprout and grow in the hardy soil of his captivity. 

In his years as a slave, Patrick turned to God in ardent prayer. He turned to Jesus who had “watched over me before I knew him” (2). In the silence of the fields and forests he prayed, and “more and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase” for “the Spirit was burning in me at that time” (16). He also found himself in the company of the local people and learned the Gaelic language fluently. The same Christ who drew him in prayer impressed the faces of the pagan people of Ireland upon his soul.

When he finally escaped and returned to Britain, Patrick was determined to dedicate his life to Christ. It was then that he had a mystical experience in which he heard the Irish people calling him back: “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us” (23). Patrick was drawn by this calling, but also hindered by fear and love of his own homeland and family. He had reason to fear, because his subsequent mission was full of tribulations and opposition in spite of its overwhelming success.

Saint Patrick ultimately became the great heroic missionary we venerate today because God’s grace empowered him to carry out many decades of hard work as a minister of the Gospel, and to overcome constant and various obstacles with ardent charity and patient persistence and endurance. There were times when he was tempted to return home and escape these struggles, but he knew that Christ was present for him in the Irish people to whom he had been sent; they were “the people to whom the love of Christ brought me and gave me in my lifetime, if I should be worthy, to serve them truly and with humility” (13).