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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The first and most important of the writings of St. Patrick is the celebrated document known as his CONFESSION. Its authenticity, both from internal and external evidence, is beyond any reasonable doubt. It was evidently in the hands of all the ancient writers of his Life, who cite it textually in many passages, and, without hesitation, recognise its authority. The modern critics also, almost without exception, accept it as the genuine composition of our national Apostle. The internal evidence is of itself convincing—its peculiar style; its soul-stirring sincerity; its incidental allusions; its spiritual fullness, manifestly proceeding from a soul animated by the Spirit of God—all go to prove that it is, indeed, the outpouring of the great heart of our own St. Patrick. No forger could ever write in such a spirit—so fervent, so touching, so sympathetic. Like the Epistles of St. Paul, it proves its own authorship; so that the most sceptical critic cannot doubt its authentic city, for he is silenced when he reads it.

We find copies of the Confession in several ancient manuscripts. Perhaps the earliest now extant is that contained in the Book of Armagh, where it is described as one of the ‘Books of St. Patrick, the Bishop,’ which seems of itself to imply that the Saint left other ‘Books’ also, although they are not contained in that work. We find it also quoted under the same title as the ‘Liber Patritii Episcopi’—both in the Second and Third Lives, as given by Colgan. In the Fourth Life it is cited as one of the ‘Books of (his) Epistles,’ and Probus, in the Fifth Life, cites it textually, showing that he had the Confession in some form before him when he wrote. Jocelyn also quotes textually from the Confession—whether directly or from the Tripartite is not easy to determine; but the author of the Tripartite formally quotes passages from the ‘Book of his own Epistles.’ There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Confession was in the hands of all these ancient writers, and that it was accepted without question by them all as the genuine composition of St. Patrick.

Manuscript copies of the Confession are also found in various public libraries—in that of St. Vedast’s Monastery near Beauvais; in the Cottonian Library of the British Museum; in the Bodleian at Oxford, and in the Library of Salisbury, as well as in many others named by Hardy in his Catalogue.

It has been frequently published also—by Ware, in 1656; by the Bollandists, in 1668; by Charles O’Connor, in 1814; by Betham, in 1826; by Villaneuva, in 1835; by Haddan and Stubbs, in 1878, and very accurately, after careful collation, by Stokes, in 1887, and quite recently by Rev. N. J. D. White, D.D. But Colgan, no doubt to his great regret, could find no copy of the Confession, which was so invaluable for the perfect accomplishment of his own great task. Of course, we have, especially of late years, several translations and explanations of the Confession in the English language, although by no means always accurate, and sometimes not even quite intelligible.

Nor is this to be wondered at; for the style of the Confession, as St. Patrick himself admits, is often rude and sometimes scarcely grammatical in its structure. The vernacular for him was the debased provincial Latin of Roman Britain. Even that he almost lost during his six years captivity in Ireland; and in Gaul he gave himself not to the cultivation of the ancient classical writers, but to the much more important study of sacred Scripture. In Ireland, too, he preached in Gaedhlic to his audiences, for they could understand nothing else; and he only used the Latin in the recitation of his Psalms, in the Mass, and the Sacramental Ritual of the Church. Hence his Latin style was always rude; and although full of vigour, and pregnant with Scriptural language and allusions, it is frequently so harsh and ungrammatical that, even without the faults of the transcribers, it must have been difficult at all times to ascertain the meaning, as it assuredly is for us, in many passages.

Still this Confession is, after the Holy Scripture, the most precious literary heirloom of the children of St. Patrick, both from a historical and, above all, from a religious point of view. It reveals to us the whole spiritual beauty of the man—the moral greatness, as well as the fatherly tenderness of his character. But it does much more, it establishes beyond question his own existence, and sheds a flood of light on the whole history of his times. Without it the sceptical critics of modern times would surely call his very existence into question—but now any critic worthy of the name must first explain the existence of that document. Even still, as we know, some of the smaller fry of critics would strive to dissect the Apostle, and give us three Patricks instead of one: as they would dissect also his glorious toil, according to their own crude fancies. But the Confession by itself refutes them all. It shows us one God-like man—like to St. Paul—our father and our Apostle, ‘the Bishop of Ireland,’ who gave his labour and his mind and his life to bring the Gael, or the Scots, as he calls them, to the knowledge of the Gospel; who loved them with the yearning love of a father; who thought of them all from the first to the last; who, like Moses, struggled with the Angel of God to secure a promise of their final perseverance, and sought to be allowed to befriend them even on the last day as the merciful assessor of their Judge. From this point of view the Confession is our most precious inheritance, because it establishes beyond dispute the existence and personal identity of one National Apostle of all Ireland; and also sets his character before us in the clearest and most striking way, for it is he himself who holds the mirror that reveals all the workings of his heart.

It may be useful here to call attention to some things in connection with the mission of St. Patrick, which the Confession clearly establishes. We shall note them in the order of the text itself, as given in the Rolls Tripartite.

First, then, we note that St. Patrick, in describing himself as ‘an unlettered sinner,’ ‘the least of all the faithful, ‘and despicable in the estimation of many,’ shows his own humility, which is manifest in every page, but also covertly alludes to the opprobrious terms which some of his adversaries had applied to him. Elsewhere he calls himself ‘indoctus’ or unlearned, and says that those who opposed his undertaking the Irish mission did so not exactly out of malice but rather on the plea that he was a ‘rustic,’ unequal to a task so weighty and so dangerous. In the Letter to Coroticus he also describes himself as ‘a sinner without learning;’ and there can be no doubt from the whole tenor of the Confession that the Saint was fully conscious of his own literary deficiencies, and especially of the rudeness of his Latin style, for which he apologises by stating that in his youth he had not the educational opportunities of others, who had no cause to drop the use of their mother tongue, as he had, ‘whose speech was changed into the tongue of the stranger;’ and he might have added, at an age when most educated young men spend their time in the acquisition of knowledge and the cultivation of their native language. During those years of collegiate education, from sixteen to twenty-two, Patrick was herding swine and striving to speak Irish in the glens and on the hills of Antrim. Yet these very years, that left him a bad Latinist, were instrumental in preparing him for his great work in Ireland, by bringing about his own sanctification, and enabling him to acquire that knowledge of the Irish tongue which was essential for his work in Ireland.

The Confession, too, clearly proves that the Saint was a native of some part of Britain, which he describes as his native country, and the home of parents or relations. It shows us also how deeply he was attached to his flock, seeing that for their sake he would not pay even a passing visit to Britain or Gaul, lest in his absence their salvation should be in aught imperilled. From this we may also infer that from the time Patrick came to preach in Ireland he never left the country for any purpose, or under any pretext.

The Confession shows us also the manifold dangers to which he was exposed, and the hardships he had to endure during all his years in Ireland, as we have elsewhere pointed out.

The Confession likewise shows that although Patrick was an indifferent Latinist, he was thoroughly acquainted with the Sacred Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament. He constantly uses the language of Scripture, whether consciously or unconsciously; and always uses it with telling effect. He was, like St. Paul, filled with the spirit of the Scriptures, and his language is, as it were, a very outpouring of the language of Scripture.

So far as we can judge, the version with which he was familiar was the Vetus Itala, or old Latin version. St. Jerome’s corrected version was certainly in use during the first quarter of the fourth century; but it was not yet in general use, and it is most likely that the version used in the schools of Gaul at that time was the older Italian Vulgate.

From the spiritual point of view, the Confession deserves careful study, and is eminently calculated to elevate the mind and improve the heart. As we have already stated, it is in no sense a biographical memoir; there is no reference to any places in Italy or Gaul; even in Ireland there is no reference to Tara or his own Armagh, or to Saul, the church of his earliest love; or to his teachers by name, or to his friends, or to his associates in the great work of converting the Irish people—all this is left a blank, and shows the absurdity of deducing any argument from his silence about what is called the Roman Mission.

There are some other important points which we can infer from the Confession. It seems to us clearly to prove that Patrick was about sixty years of age when he came to preach in Ireland, that he came but once to Ireland as an Apostle and never left it; that he converted the whole island to the Christian faith, that he penetrated where no one had ever been before to preach the Gospel, and that he was exposed, even to the end of his life, to perils of various kinds, which we cannot now realise.






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