We know much about St. Patrick because of his writings, especially his Confession. Born in 389 he was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave. He was about sixteen years old. He displays no self-pity in his writings. Indeed he notes in his Confession that he and thousands of others taken as slaves deserved this because, he wrote, “we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved.” In captivity in Ireland he turned with all his heart to God who had mercy on him. His task in slavery was to tend sheep on the slopes of Slemish Mountain. This he did for six years, the average time of priestly formation. This was probably the most formative period in his life. There Patrick fell back on the faith of his childhood and fell into the hands of God. His faith became so strong that it triumphed over the piercing cold of the mountain and the profound loneliness of isolation.
The six years of Patrick’s captivity became preparation for his future apostolate. He became proficient in the Irish language in which he would later preach Christ’s Gospel. He learned about the druids from his master, who was a druidical high priest. This knowledge would be essential later in his work of conversion. Through those difficult six years Patrick was equipped for his future mission. God uses everything to shape and prepare us for what he asks of us. God used Patrick’s capture and slavery to bring an entire people to the true God, a people who would in turn bring other peoples to God. God can use everything that happens to us. He takes account of everything from all eternity. He has factored in even what is most upsetting in our lives – like Patrick’s captivity. He brings good out of evil. “All things work for the good of those who love God” (Rom 8:28).
Eventually Patrick, under God’s guidance, escaped and returned home. He became a priest and bishop. A recurring vision drew him back to Ireland in which the voice of the Irish called out to him: “We beg you, holy youth to come and walk once more among us.” Patrick did return as the apostle of Ireland, with the blessing of Pope St. Celestine I, arriving on Irish soil in 433.
Apparently this was the final act of Pope Saint Celestine before he died. Just two years before that, in 431, Pope Celestine had sent another bishop, Palladius, to Ireland, but it didn’t work out. We’re not sure why it didn’t work out with Palladius. Put simply, Palladius didn’t want to be in a strange land and returned home again. It wasn’t God’s will – or – as the Book of Armagh states: “God hindered Palladius.”
When things didn’t work out with Palladius, St. Patrick, who, to his great disappointment, had been refused this assignment before, now received the commission a few days before the death of Pope Celestine. God’s will will never be thwarted! This is something we need to be aware of in our own lives. God is in control. Jesus is Lord! Knowing this helps us grow in surrender and obedience to God and those he has placed over us. It’s a lesson Patrick learned. It’s a lesson Jonah learned when he ran in the opposite direction from God’s will and God placed him right back in Ninevah where he wanted him.
It’s a lesson the young Irish Jesuit Frank Brown learned and cherished for the rest of his life. Fr. Frank Brown became a very famous photographer and gave us the last photographs of the Titanic. He was a seminarian in Dublin when his uncle sent him a ticket for the Titanic’s maiden voyage. He travelled on the Titanic from Southampton to Cork. He was to travel on to New York but sought his superior’s permission to do so. His provincial sent him a reply by telegram saying only: ‘GET OFF THAT SHIP!’ He obeyed, and the rest is history. Fr Brown kept that telegram in his wallet for the rest of his life claiming that holy obedience saved his life. Sometimes it’s better to ask permission than forgiveness!
Obedience and trust in the divine will is the lesson of the saints. “Obedience is the sure sign to us of the divine will” (St Maximilian Kolbe). “The awkwardness of God is that his will must always be first and must prevail” (D. Peter Burrows). “If there were another and better way, Christ would certainly have shown it to us by word and example” (St Maximilian Kolbe), he who was obedient even unto death. What struck me re-reading the Confessions of St Patrick was the immediacy and intimacy of his relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit guided him closely and directed him clearly and vividly, just as the Spirit acted in the Acts of the Apostles. Christ acted in and through him, almost identifying with Patrick.
Looking back on his life, Patrick expressed great gratitude to the Lord for the wonders of his grace in him. He wrote: “Who am I Lord and what is my calling that you worked through me with such divine power?” “I didn’t deserve … that the Lord would grant such great grace … after so many years among that people. It was something which, when I was young, I never hoped for or even thought of.”
May it be the same for us looking back on our lives, that cooperating with God’s grace, through obedience and trust in the divine will, we may reap an abundant harvest and rejoice in gratitude for what God has done in us, “things we never hoped for or even thought of…”