Quote: "The Lord opened the understanding of my unbelief, that, late as it was, I might remember my faults and turn to the Lord my God with all my heart."
Growing out of the ministry of Celtic monks in Britain is the work of an illustrious missionary to Ireland. Patrick (c. 389 - 461) is a much-celebrated saint, though his actual identity is shrouded in legend. Indeed, historians have for centuries wondered if there were actually two individuals (Pelladius and Patrick) melded into one. The first of these individuals is thought to have died in 461, and the second in 493. History is not always an exact science, and the story of St. Patrick is too good to be set aside for want of solid data. So Patrick and his double become one, and we recognize that hagiography and biography are often blended.
Patrick is born in Britain into a Celtic Christian family of clerics—his father a deacon and his grandfather a priest. Kidnapped by a band of Irish plunderers when still a youth, Patrick is sold into slavery. For six long years he herds swine and seeks God. During this time he is convinced that he hears the voice of God telling him that a ship is waiting to take him home. He escapes and journeys to a port where he works aboard ship for his passage home. Now a free man, he finds refuge in a monastery and then returns to his home. There God speaks in a vision:
I saw a man named Victoricus, coming as if from Ireland, with innumerable letters; and he gave me one of these, and . . . while I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought that at that very moment I heard the voice of those who were beside the wood of Focluth, near the western sea; and this is what they called out: "Please, holy boy, come and walk among us again." Their cry pierced to my very heart, and I could read no more; and so I awoke.
For Patrick the vision is God's call, but the clerics are not convinced. In spite of one delay after another, however, he finally arrives back in Ireland in 432, now past the age of forty. His mission field is isolated and hostile, beyond the borders of the empire. There are scattered Christian communities, but his encounters are primarily with pagans who have no desire to turn away from their traditional ways of worship. They revere the sun and wind and fire and rocks, a worldview that finds magic and spirits everywhere in nature. The druid priests mount strong opposition, but Patrick eventually prevails. He trumps their magic with magic (or miracles) of his own, causing some historians to wonder if Patrick might have been the mightiest druid of them all.
In the years that follow, Patrick impresses political leaders and makes alliances that promote church growth. Within fifteen years much of Ireland is reportedly evangelized. His missionary story features perilous journeys, life-threatening opposition, kidnapping, and captivity. After some thirty years of ministry, he laments: "I fear to lose the labor which I began" lest God "would note me as guilty."
The evangelization of Ireland by Patrick and others is a venture conducted primarily by the Celtic church, as opposed to the Roman church. One of the most noted of the Celtic abbot-missionaries is Columba, who, with twelve clerics to serve under him, establishes his headquarters just off the coast of Scotland on Iona, a small barren, foggy island, battered year-round by pounding waves. Here he sets forth a monastic life of prayer, fasting, meditation, Bible study, manual labor, and training for evangelists who are then commissioned to preach, build churches, and establish more monasteries.
Although Gregory I is credited with initiating the conversion of Europe through missionary and military undertakings, the work of Patrick, Columba, and others is also an important piece of the puzzle. Indeed, this is an era when missionary ventures spurred by monastic expansion begin in earnest.