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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The Tripartite gives a curious account of the way in which St. Patrick procured relics of the saints and martyrs from Rome to be used in the consecration of his Irish churches. To make it intelligible we must bear in mind the law and practice as to the use and veneration of the relics of the saints.

We know from the testimony of the most learned of the Greek and Latin Fathers that great veneration was paid to the relics of the martyrs from the earliest ages of the Church’s history, and great efficacy was attributed to their possession or application. St. Ambrose, A.D. 393, speaks of the relics of the martyrs, Vitalis and Agricola, as ‘trophies of the cross, whose virtue you perceive in their works.’ St. Chrysostom says, ‘let us fall down before their remains, let us embrace their coffins, for the coffins of the martyrs can acquire great virtue.’ St. Basil says that ‘the ashes of the Forty Martyrs when thrown into a stream carried blessings to all the neighbouring coasts. Like towers closely set, they afford protection against the incursions of our enemies’—and numberless quotations of a similar kind might be cited.

The custom of erecting altars over the bodies of the martyrs had its origin in the catacombs, and afterwards it became customary to build churches and altars over the place where the martyrs suffered; but in these cases it was always required that some of the relics should be really preserved in or under the altar. And St. Jerome expressly states that the Popes used in person to offer sacrifice over the bodies of St. Peter and Paul, whose tombs were the altars of Christ. This custom became so universal that it was made obligatory by law in all cases, as it is still, to have the relics of the martyrs under the altar or inserted in the altar stone or table itself, and it was ordered that wherever churches or altars had been dedicated without those ‘sacred pledges’ of the saints, they were as soon as possible to be supplied with them.

This practice and legislation was in full force when St. Patrick came to Ireland; and he, of course, as far as possible, complied with the requirements of the Church. He brought both books and relics with him when first he came to preach to Ireland; but the supply soon became exhausted, and he found it necessary to procure more. Rome was naturally the great place to send for a supply of relics; and we know that during the fifth and sixth centuries it had become a common practice to send from all parts of Europe to Rome for relics to be used in the consecration of churches and altars, and the Liber Diurnus of the Roman Pontiffs contains a copy of the form of application to be made in all such cases.

When these relics were brought to any place for the consecration of a new church, it was prescribed that vigils should be kept and prayers recited before the relics during the whole of the preceding night; and when a quantity of relics were kept in any place they were to be preserved in a shrine or other reliquary, with the utmost reverence and care. From time to time, especially on the great festivals of the Church, they were to be exposed to the devotion of the people, and the clergy were required, particularly on Sundays, to recite certain prayers and psalms before the relics, by way of invoking the intercession of the saints in heaven. Numberless decrees of Councils, some of them dating from the earliest times, point to these observances as not only laudable but obligatory; and they are set out at great length and with much learning by a Protestant writer in the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities.

Now, when Patrick was going through the country of necessity he carried his relics about with him in some kind of portable pix, or theca, or reliquary, or sacrarium, for these terms have been all applied to sacred vessels used for this purpose. But now that he had finally settled at Armagh he established a fixed place for keeping his relics, and, in our opinion, his first church of Na Ferta took its name from the fact that the relics of the martyrs were kept there. Then, as we have said, when they began to run short, he had to procure a fresh supply from Rome, which was the spiritual treasury of the whole Christian world for this purpose. So he had either to go himself to Rome, or send some person, to procure relics for him in the Holy City.

The Tripartite represents Patrick himself as going to Rome to procure his relics, and relates the fact in a very curious fashion.

“One day,” it tells us, “the Angel—Victor, no doubt—came to Patrick in Armagh and said to him, ‘To-day the relics of the apostles (and martyrs) are to be divided in Rome so as to provide for the needs of the various churches of Christendom,’ and as Patrick was then old, and besides could not, in human fashion, travel to Rome in a day or two, the Angel added, “I will carry you thither,” so that he might get a share of the relics.

‘Now, there were seen at the Southern (termon) Cross of Aenach Macha, four chariots, which were brought to Patrick that he might set out on this Roman journey.’ We are also told that at the Northern Cross of Armagh he saw our Saviour himself, as He will come to judge the world on the day of judgment; that is, in great power and majesty. So Patrick no longer hesitated, but leaving Sechnall, his beloved nephew and coadjutor ‘in the bishopric with the men of Ireland,’ he himself entered one of the chariots, and in the first day’s journey he was carried all the way to Comar Tri n Uisce—that is, apparently, the confluence of the Suir, Nore, and Barrow, near Waterford. There Patrick found a ship from Burdigala of Letavia—the modern Bordeaux. Embarking in this, he was, after a time, carried up the Tiber, even to Rome itself. Just then sleep or torpor came over the people of Rome, so that Patrick carried off as much of the holy relics as he wanted for the needs of his Irish churches, and they were all taken to Armagh by the counsel of God and the counsel of the men of Ireland. They included three hundred and three score and five relics, together with the relics of Peter and Paul, and of Laurence and Stephen, and of many others. They also included a sheet with Christ’s blood thereon, and with the hair of Mary the Virgin. Patrick brought the whole collection to Armagh, according to the will of God, and of his angel, and of the men of Ireland.

This story, as it stands, must be rejected, first of all because it is inconsistent with the Confession of Patrick, for the Saint very clearly states that although he was anxious to go to ‘the Britains’ to visit his native country and relations (parentes), yea, and go further, even to Gaul itself, to visit his (spiritual) brethren, and see once more the face of the Saints of God, yet he was restrained by the Spirit of God, who testified to him that he should not go, but spend the remainder of his days in Ireland. Then the miraculous mode of travelling shows that the writer of the narrative was conscious of the difficulty of bringing St. Patrick to Rome in the ordinary way.

As to the pious theft of the relics we have ample evidence that the surreptitious abstraction of relics was quite common at the time, and had to be forbidden under severe penalties by various Popes and Councils. But it seems to be entirely a gratuitous statement to make St. Patrick guilty of a pious fraud of this kind, seeing that he could easily have got the relics without it.

We may, then, fairly assume that the narrative is imaginary, so far as it brings St. Patrick himself to Rome. On the other hand, we may readily admit, indeed we must admit, that he sent some one to Rome to procure relics for the purposes already explained, and it is only natural to conclude that these relics would be preserved in Armagh.

The Tripartite adds that a letter was brought from the Pontiff to Patrick directing that there should be vigils before the relics with lamps and lights in the nights always, and Mass and psalm-singing by day, and prayer in the night, and that they should be exposed every year for the multitudes to venerate them. All this was the common law and practice of the time, and it applied not merely to the eve of the dedication of the church where the relics were exposed to the veneration of the faithful, but to every church or chapel which was set apart for the custody of celebrated relics. Of this we have ample evidence in the teaching of the Fathers as well as in the decrees of the early Councils.

As we have said, some church at Armagh, most probably the Na Ferta, was chosen to be the repository of the sacred relics sent to Patrick from Rome, and they were enclosed in a reliquary or receptacle, called in the Book of Armagh by the curious name of a sarcophagus, which is described in the margin as ‘du ferti martyr’ (i.e.) the graves or relics of the martyrs. Nay, more, in the Book of the Angel we have the very psalms prescribed to be said every Sunday when going in procession from Armagh on the Hill to these Graves of the Martyrs, an injunction which, as we know, was quite in conformity with the practice of the universal church at the time.






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