Three lessons from St. Patrick

By Julianne Stanz | For The Compass | March 13, 2020

For the past 12 years, I have carried in my little black binder a copy of St. Patrick’s most famous writings or his “Confessio.” I take his writings into every meeting and they have helped me to navigate many difficult times in my life as I get to know St. Patrick better.

By all accounts, St. Patrick is an enigma. Little is known about his life and yet he lives on in popular culture as the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland and explained the Trinity using a shamrock. He is often identified as Irish by birth, but he was not. There are many folktales and places associated with St. Patrick throughout Ireland, but despite the legends, we actually know very little of St. Patrick.

We are unsure of his date or place of birth or the place of his death. We are not sure of the exact routes that St. Patrick traversed the countryside of Ireland beyond the stories and legends associated with him. But what we are sure of can be found in his writings, the “Confessio” (“Confessions”), or his “Letter to King Coroticus,” where his humility, strength of faith and utter devotion to God is revealed. What does St. Patrick tell us of his own story? Let’s look at what we do know.

After being captured as a child by Irish pirates in Roman Britain and enslaved on a mountain called Slieve Mish or Slemish, Patrick dramatically escapes and returns home. To his family’s dismay, he leaves once again to train for the priesthood as a result of hearing God’s voice speaking during his captivity. After being appointed a bishop, Patrick was sent back to Ireland to preach the Gospel to the native Irish who were renowned for their pagan ways.

St. Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain called “Croagh Patrick” in order to prepare for his public ministry and, in defiance of the King of Leinster, lit the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane at Easter. Contrary to the media portrayal of St. Patrick’s Day as being one of revelry and drunkenness, St. Patrick is a model for our Lenten journey as a bold, courageous witness for Jesus Christ. There are three Lenten themes found in his writings, three “Rs” — repent, renew and restore.

At the heart of our faith is relationship. We are created by God for relationship with him, and by our sin, we fall short and fail God, others and ourselves. St. Patrick identifies himself with his sin in the first sentence of his Confessio as follows: “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.”

The keys to repentance are the same for us as they were for St. Patrick, and are found in a sincere heart searching for the Lord and growing in friendship through prayer and fasting. The call to pray, fast and give alms are not just Lenten disciplines but they are essential practices for us as Catholics.

St. Patrick recognizes that God wants us to be renewed in his love. He urges us to consider that God’s mercy is greater than any of our sins and, if we approach him with a humble and repentant heart, that God will bring about a renewal in our lives. In his Confessio, he compares himself to “a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.” God can take our lowliness and exalt us to a place of honor, if we approach him with faithfulness, humility and trust.

Wholeness and restoration is made possible through God’s love and forgiveness. The ultimate sign of God’s love is the gift of his son Jesus Christ, who has saved us from death. What has been taken away by sin and weakness, God will restore with love and mercy. When we have found healing and restoration in the Lord, our response ought to be an overflowing gratitude. As St. Patrick reminds us, “This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”

St. Patrick, the great missionary, urges us to bear witness to God and to praise God above all, even when suffering comes to us. Repent, renew and restore during this Lenten season with a little help from St. Patrick.

Stanz is director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay. Her new book, “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church,” is now available from Loyola Press.

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