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The saint of second chances

He was first a Briton, then a Christian, then an Irishman before he became the saint of second chances.


Celtic Cross in Northumbria

The patron saint of the Irish, Patrick was born in Britain and raised there. Irish pirates captured him in his teens.


They carried him west across the sea, and sold Patrick into slavery in Ireland.

He was forced to tend sheep in the green glens of Antrim. Cold and hungry he was always at the mercy of those who owned him. Out of desperation he began to pray. For six years he survived, and prayed. One night -- it couldn't have been a minute too soon -- he heard the voice of God telling him it was time to leave.


Patrick began walking south. Incredibly no one stopped him though he must have carried the marks of the runaway slave.

He reached Wexford, but couldn't find a ship that would take him. Then sailors on a ship carrying wolfhounds to Gaul invited him on board. He was thrilled, but a bit nonplussed when the sailors offered him their nipples to be kissed - a sign of welcome.

They landed in Europe, only to discover desolation. Tribes had recently crossed the frozen Rhine and devastated Gaul. Desperate for food, and despite the skepticism of the captain, Patrick prayed to the Lord. A herd of pigs snuffled into view. . .

A sunny sanctuary

Still uncertain of his future, but following his inner voice, Patrick made his way across Gaul to a monastery on the sunny little island now called St. Honorat, which lay in the Mediterranean, not far from Cannes.

There he studied, prayed, and breathed in southern warmth and the scents of lavender and basil, lemon and roses. His six years of slavery in Ireland disappeared from memory like a ship over the horizon.

At the monastery the monks maintained a civilized belief in books and the siesta. Patrick learned Latin, though not very well, and the parables of Christ. He began to think he could live a comfortable life forever.

Dream visions

It was only in his dreams that the ship returned, and he saw the outstretched arms of the Irish imploring him to return, calling to him from across the water. For a long time, fear kept him motionless.

Patrick became a priest, and was approaching middle age when he had another visionary dream. He heard a voice say, “He who has given his own soul for you, He it is who speaks in you. Come back to Eire and free us.”

Patrick made the free but frightening decision to return to the people who had kidnapped and enslaved him, and preach the love of God. He would have to face his own fears, church snobbery, betrayal and violence.

Return to Ireland

All too aware of the dangers and his own modest abilities, Patrick left the easy comradeship and the library of books, and crossed the mountains to the north. He sailed over the turbulent northern waters, heading toward the green island where there was not one book and where, years earlier, he had spent six years as a hungry, naked slave.

Ireland rose on the horizon like the ship of his captivity. But this was the place, Patrick later wrote, where poverty and calamity were better than riches.

Ireland early in the fifth century was a turbulent and violent place. Patrick made the daring decision to ignore threats and give himself to God. To give himself totally and with complete sincerity. To lean on the Lord and trust Him wholly.

He travelled through Ireland, confronting the slaveowners, demanding they end slavery, and establishing Christian communities of education, healing, and peace.

As he travelled, defying attack and assassination, Patrick sang Faeth Fiadha, the Deer’s Cry, –

I arise today through the strength of heaven
light of sun,
radiance of moon,
splendour of fire,
speed of lightning
swiftness of wind,
depth of sea,
stability of earth,
firmness of rock.
I arise today through God's strength to pilot me. . .