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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

SOME few Protestant writers in our own times have, for controversial purposes, sought to obscure or deny what is called the Roman Mission of St. Patrick; that is, his commission from St. Celestine to preach the Gospel in Ireland. Their arguments are purely negative; that is, from the silence of certain writers, who, in their opinion, might be expected to make special reference to the Roman Mission, they infer that it had no existence. When brought face to face with the vast array of ancient authorities that expressly assert in various ways this Roman Mission of St. Patrick, they try to explain them away as the inventions of a later age. These writers have also sought to mix up the acts of Palladius and Patrick with a view to throw doubt on both, and, ignoring the substantial agreement in the ancient Lives of our Saint, they seek to magnify the minor points of difference for the purpose of throwing discredit on them all. Really learned men, like Usher and Ware, never lent their authority to controversial arguments of this kind. They set out the facts as they found them, and let history speak for itself.

We merely propose here to give an outline of the question, so that any impartial reader can judge for himself the real points at issue.

First of all we may point out that the practice of getting a Roman Commission to preach the Gospel in new countries existed even so early as the end of the fourth century. St. Ninian of Candida Casa was probably the earliest British missionary of whom we have any certain information. He was the Apostle of the Southern Picts, ‘a most reverend bishop and holy man of the British nation,’ and he founded his Church of Candida Casa, as Bede expressly tells us, towards the close of the fourth century. But though a Briton, he was regularly instructed at Rome in the faith and mysteries of the truth ‘and came from Rome with apostolic authority to preach to his countrymen in North Britain.’ So far Bede.

When the Pelagian heresy was rampant in the British Church, we know that St. Germanus of Auxerre was sent as his legate, vice sua, by St. Celestine, to arrest the progress of heresy in Britain. Although requested by a synod of Gallican Bishops to undertake the weighty task, Germanus would not do so without the express authority of the Pope, as the contemporary Chronicle of Prosper tells us.

Again, when Germanus reported the state of Ireland to the Pope, and suggested, so far as we can judge, the propriety of sending missionaries there, it was Celestine who commissioned Palladius to go to Ireland, ordaining him a Bishop with plenary authority to preach the Gospel to the Irish Scots, as the same Prosper asserts, and the scholars of every school admit.

Later on, too, when the pagan Saxons of England were to be converted, everyone knows that it was Pope St. Gregory who sent St. Augustine and his companions to carry out that glorious mission, which they did with such marvellous success. Seeing, then, that it was from Rome that all the great missionaries whom we have named were sent to all parts of the British Islands, is it not natural to expect that St. Patrick likewise would seek his commission from the Pope, just as his master Germanus had done before him, and Palladius also, his immediate predecessor in the Irish Mission?

And, as a fact, we find that all the ancient writers without exception, both at home and abroad, who refer to the question, as well as all the greatest modern scholars, expressly declare that St. Patrick was sent to preach in Ireland by Pope Celestine. Colgan gives all these testimonies at length; we can only touch upon them briefly.

Perhaps the oldest, and certainly not the least authoritative, are the statements in the Book of Armagh. Tirechan says:—

In the ninth year of the Emperor Theodosius, Patrick the Bishop is sent to teach the Scots by Celestine, Bishop of Rome. This Celestine was the forty-second Bishop from Peter the Apostle in the city of Rome. Palladius the Bishop is first sent, who was called Patrick by another name; he suffered martyrdom amongst the Scots, as the ancient holy men tell. Then the second Patrick is sent by God’s Angel, Victor by name, and by Pope Celestine; in him all Ireland believed, and he baptized almost the whole country.

The original Latin of this passage is found in the fifteenth folio of the Book of Armagh, in the original hand of the first copyist. Bishop Tirechan is there stated to have written these collections from the dictation, or copied them from the Book of his own tutor, Bishop Ultan of Ardbraccan, who died A.D. 656. They were, therefore, written by Tirechan before that date, and copied into the Book of Armagh, as we have it, in the beginning of the ninth century. It is not likely that either of these holy bishops invented the Roman Mission of St. Patrick. They simply record the ancient traditions of Ardbraccan and Armagh, if they did not take the statement from the now lost work written by Patrick himself, called the ‘Commemoratio Laborum,’ which Tirechan had before him, and which seems to have been different from The Confession, called by Tirechan ‘Scriptio Sua.’ This clear and definite statement of Tirechan is of itself quite enough to settle the question of the Roman Mission. There is not a shadow of reason for rejecting its accuracy.

In the Book of Armagh we also find reference to the Sayings of St. Patrick—well-known maxims of his handed down by tradition. One of these clearly shows that he travelled much in Italy, as well as in Gaul and the Islands of the Tyrrhene Sea. “I had,” the Apostle used to say, “the fear of God, the companion of my way, through the Gauls and Italy, and in the Islands which are in the Tyrrhene Sea.” It would be incredible if he travelled through Italy without going to Rome; and going to Rome he would naturally claim the sanction of the Pope for that missionary journey to Ireland which he contemplated. The man who always called upon his flock ‘to be Romans as they were Christians’—ut Christiani ita et Romam ni sitis—was not likely to set out from Italy to preach the Gospel in Ireland without the sanction of the Pope; and as a fact all our ancient authorities are unanimous in asserting this Roman Mission.

Take first Fiacc’s Irish Hymn. There we are told that Patrick abode with Germanus in Southern Letha, and there studied the canons under Germanus, who was an intimate friend of Pope Celestine; and the ancient Scholiast on Fiacc adds that ‘it was Celestine, the successor of St. Peter, who conferred the name Patritius on our Apostle’; and, morever, that it was at the suggestion of Germanus Patrick went to Celestine to receive Orders and authority from him to preach in Ireland. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘to Celestine that he may confer Orders upon thee, for he is the proper person to confer them’—that is, to authorise the ordination of St. Patrick for the Irish mission. We also know that such was the discipline of the fifth century; for no Metropolitan but the Pope had authority to ordain bishops for any mission outside their own provinces.

The Second Life in Colgan expressly states that after the failure of the mission of Palladius in Ireland, St. Patrick, ‘by command of Pope Celestine,’ crossed over to Ireland and landed at Inver Dea.

The Third Life makes the same statement in different words—that Patrick, by command of Pope Celestine, returned to this Island.

The Fourth Life, attributed to St. Aileran the Wise, tells us that Patrick, on his arrival in Rome, was honourably received by the holy Pope Celestine, and getting relics of the saints, was sent by the same Pope Celestine to Ireland.

The Fifth Life by Probus goes into more minute details, and represents St. Patrick as failing at first to convert the Irish, then begging God to direct his way to the Holy Roman See, that he might receive there proper authority to preach the Gospel in Ireland. ‘He then came to Rome, the head of all the Churches, and having received there the Apostolic Benediction, he returned once more to Ireland to preach the Gospel.’

The author of the Sixth Life, Jocelyn, enlarges on the Roman Mission, showing that it was the universal belief in the twelfth century; and the author of the Tripartite Life attributed to St. Evin is equally explicit in asserting the Roman Mission so early as the seventh or eighth century, if we accept O’Curry’s opinion of the antiquity of this ancient Irish Life.

The author of the Irish Life in the Lebar Brecc declares likewise that Patrick was received with honour by the Romans, and ‘by their Abbot, whose name was Celestine,’ and that it was ‘in accordance with the will of the Synod of Rome that he came to Ireland.’ So we see that every single ancient Life of our Apostle makes reference to his Roman Mission. So likewise Marianus Scotus and Nennius formally assert the Roman Mission of Patrick as an unquestionable historical fact.

Hence it is that Protestant scholars, like Usher and Stokes, have generally admitted it, and that no one down to our own time called the ancient authorities in question regarding this Roman Mission of St. Patrick.

And now, why should this great host of ancient authorities who affirm the Roman Mission of St. Patrick be summarily ignored? Because, forsooth, they are not contemporary authorities, and the contemporary authorities whom we should expect to speak are silent on the question. A negative argument is always unsafe, but let us ask why should we expect them to speak on this particular question.

The first expected to speak would be St. Patrick himself in the Confession. ‘The one object of the writer was to defend himself from the charge of presumption in having undertaken such a work as the Conversion of the Irish, rude and unlettered as he was. Had he received a regular commission from the See of Rome, that fact alone would have been an unanswerable reply.’ Here one may ask—why would it have been unanswerable except for this one reason, that the contemporaries of St. Patrick universally recognised the authority and supremacy of the Roman See—an admission on which we may observe, it is satisfactory to find a writer like Todd basing his argument.

Now, as a fact, St. Patrick in the Confession seeks not only to vindicate himself from the charge of presumption in undertaking to preach in Ireland, but likewise from the charge of rashness in exposing his life to danger amongst a barbarous people, and also from any suspicion of self-seeking in preaching the Gospel in Ireland. He vindicates himself against all these charges, mainly by showing that he had a direct and immediate mission from God Himself to preach in Ireland; a command which he dare not disobey, and which was again and again intimated to him by God’s Angel, Victor, by the voices of the youth from Focluth Wood, which were always ringing in his ears, as well as by the personal command of Christ Himself. He then points to the marvellous success of his mission to prove that God was with him in his work, and to his constant refusal to accept the generous gifts of the people, lest anyone there or elsewhere should question his disinterestedness in preaching the Gospel. He sought neither honour, nor wealth, nor influence in Ireland; nothing but the souls of the people. Everyone knew he was sent to Ireland by the Pope; no one questioned or denied his mission from Celestine. Why, then, should he appeal to his mission from Celestine when adopting this line of argument? To appeal to a mission from man, when he was claiming an immediate mission from God, would rather weaken than strengthen that argument.

Hence St. Patrick makes no reference to the Pope, nor any reference to St. Germanus, the greatest and holiest prelate of the time, his teacher, too, and adviser. If Todd’s line of argument were good, that Patrick makes no reference to a mission from Rome, because there was none, might we not, at least, expect that Patrick would say, ‘I came to Ireland with the full sanction and approval of the great and holy Germanus, whose pupil I had been for so many years.’ But he does not. He appeals to no mission from man, because he claimed a direct and immediate mission from God; and he gave all his thought and attention to prove the existence of that divine mission by narrating the marvellous supernatural facts of his own life history, as well as the undeniable success of his missionary labours in Ireland. A whole nation turning from the worship of idols through his ministry to serve the true and living God was the all-sufficient refutation of the charges made against him, and a complete proof of the supernatural mission which he claimed for himself. To a man who argues in this way it would only weaken his case to say—‘I was sent to Ireland by the Pope’—a fact which everyone knew, and which one knew also did not suffice to make the mission of Palladius successful in Ireland, nor his own prudence unquestionable. But Patrick had the divine call; to that he appealed, and rightly too; for it was that, we know, which made his mission a success.

But it has been said—Secundinus, his nephew, in the Hymn which he composed in praise of Patrick, makes no mention of the Roman Mission. It is quite sufficient reply to say that Secundinus confines himself to describing the virtues of St. Patrick’s character, which he does fully; but he does not narrate a single fact in his history beyond the one central fact that he preached in Ireland. He does not refer to his birth-place, or parents, or country, or captivity, or education in Gaul, or contests with Laeghaire’s Druids, or to any other single one of the well-known facts in the life of our great Apostle. Why, then, should he go out of his way to refer to the Roman Mission? It would not be in place, but decidedly out of place, in the Hymn, as it has been written by Secundinus. But, it is said, Prosper the Chronicler makes no reference to the Mission of Patrick, although he refers to that of Palladius in 431. ‘If he knew anything of Patrick’s Mission in 432 he would have certainly referred to it.’ Perhaps he would if he did know it; but it seems he knew nothing of the issue of the mission of Palladius, which he regards as successful; for he says that by that mission Celestine made christian the barbaric island (of the Scots), which we know was not the fact; or, it may be that the Chronicler contented himself with announcing the mission of the first Bishop sent to convert the Scots, implying thereby that Celestine, through him and his successors, had christianised the island. The Chronicle is very brief and by no means full. So one pregnant entry was made to do all he wanted, that is to give the credit of christianising Ireland to Celestine, who certainly deserved it.

It is, however, very doubtful if Prosper ever heard of the failure of the mission of Palladius, or the subsequent mission of St. Patrick, for the work in its first form closes in 433, when Patrick had only begun his preaching in Ireland. The Chronicle was continued afterwards to A.D. 444, and again to 455, but whether by Prosper himself or by other hands is doubtful. It is said by some that Prosper died in 433, before he could by any possibility have heard anything of the success of Patrick’s mission. To base an argument on the silence of Prosper in these circumstances does not argue either critical acumen or controversial candour.

But Fiacc, the disciple of Patrick, is silent as to the Roman Mission, although he gives in the metrical Life the leading facts of St. Patrick’s history. Yes, he gives some, but he certainly does not give them all; for the whole poem consists of sixty-eight lines only. He merely refers in the briefest fashion to the chief events in the Apostle’s life, hinting at rather than expressly stating them. And so, too, he seems to hint at the Roman Mission, for we are told that Patrick went tar Elpa, which Todd translates ‘over the Alps,’ and adds that he was with Germanus in the southern part of Letha, which the same learned authority renders Latium, or, in other words, the territory of Rome. To cross the Alps and dwell in Latium implies clearly enough that Patrick was in Rome and came to Ireland with the sanction of the Pope, whose name the poet would find it exceedingly difficult to introduce into his Irish metre. But if Fiacc himself is silent on the Roman Mission, his ancient Scholiast is not; for, commenting on Germanus’ connection with Patrick, he expressly says that Germanus told Patrick—“Go to Celestinus that he may confer Orders upon thee, for he is the proper person to confer them.” So Patrick went to him, but “he (the Pope) did not at first give him that honour, for he had previously sent Palladius to Ireland to teach it;” but when the Pope heard of the failure of Palladius then he authorised Patrick to undertake the task.

It will be seen, therefore, that no sound argument can be deduced from the alleged silence of certain contemporary documents to overthrow the long array of ancient historical testimonies, derived from so many different sources, which expressly assert the Roman Mission of St. Patrick.

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