This may come as a surprise to many that St. Patrick was and is an Orthodox Saint centuries before Rome split from the Holy Apostolic Church.
The rule of thumb for Orthodox Christians is that a Latin Christian who lived after the Great Schism of 1054, while they may have lived exemplary lives, are not saints in the full sense of the Church’s understanding. But because he lived from c. 385 to 17 March 460/461 Patrick is considered part of the undivided Church and therefore is an Orthodox saint.
St. Patrick’s Life
The name “Patrick” is derived from the Latin “Patricius” which means “highborn.” He was born in the village of Bannavem Taburniae. Its location is uncertain; some scholars place it on the west coast of England, while others place it in Scotland. His father was Calpurnius, a Roman Decurion (an official responsible for collecting taxes) and a deacon in the church. His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest.
This means that Patrick had a solid Christian upbringing and was well acquainted with the refinements of Roman civilization. But he lived on the edge of civilization at a time when the Roman Empire was under siege by barbarians. When Patrick was sixteen he was kidnapped by pirates, taken to Ireland, and there sold as a slave. He was put to work as a herder of swine on a mountain in County Antrim.
Looking back on his youth, he recounts:
I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. (Confessio §1)
Although Patrick had a Christian upbringing, he took his faith for granted. This complacency would be shaken by the calamity of being taken into exile. For the next six years he spent much of his time in solitude and prayer which would prepare him for life as a monastic. During this time Patrick also learned the local language which would prepare him for his future work as a missionary bishop.
But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number… (Confessio §16)
His escape from slavery resulted from two visions. In the first vision it was revealed that he would return home. The second vision told him his ship was ready. He then walked two hundred miles to the coast, succeeded in boarding a ship, and reunited with his parents.
Sometime later Patrick studied for the priesthood under St. Germanus in Gaul (France). Eventually, he was consecrated as a bishop and entrusted with the mission to Ireland. Patrick had a dream in which he heard the Irish people begging him to come back to them. There were other missionaries in Ireland but it was St. Patrick who had the greatest success. For this reason, he is known as “The Enlightener of Ireland.”
Evangelizing the Irish people was not an easy task. The Irish populace regarded him with hostility and disdain. He was a foreigner and, worst yet, a former slave. Despite the opposition, Patrick persevered in his missionary calling and baptized many into Christ. This resulted in churches and monasteries all across Ireland.
In his autobiography Patrick described his motivation for doing missionary work:
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: ‘To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth… (Confessio §38)
St. Patrick’s missionary labors would result in a blessing, not just to the Irish, but to humankind as well. How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill tells how Ireland became an isle of saints and scholars, preserving Western civilization while the Continent was being overrun by barbarians.
American culture has been richly blessed by the presence of the Irish. In the US, March 17th has become something close to a national holiday. While in many instances St. Patrick’s day has become more of an excuse for partying, it can also be made into an occasion for renewing our faith in Christ.
St. Patrick’s Faith
We learn of his faith through the well known Breastplate of St. Patrick. It is also known as the Lorica (Latin for ‘breastplate.’). In the monastic tradition a lorica is a prayer/incantation for spiritual protection.
Below are some excerpts of the rather lengthy but powerful and inspiring prayer. There is a strong masculine and militant tone in Patrick’s prayer that contrasts with the softer, more feminine quality of later Christian spirituality.
I arise today through a mighty strength,
the invocation of the Trinity,
through belief in the Threeness,
through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.
I arise today through the strength of Christ with His Baptism,
through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial,
through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.
Patrick’s commitment to Orthodoxy can be seen in the third stanza which refers to the fellowship of the saints and angelic hosts. His was not the faith of rugged individualism but one marked by a profound awareness of the interconnectedness with the spirit and biblical worlds as expressed in the Liturgy.
I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels,
in hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets,
in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors,
in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.
In the fourth stanza we learn of Patrick’s zeal for holy Orthodoxy and spiritual warfare against the forces of darkness.
I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils): against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul, against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of heathenry, against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry, against spells of witches and smiths and wizards, against every knowledge that endangers man’s body and soul. Christ to protect me today against poison, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come abundance of reward.
Living in dangerous times Patrick was keenly aware of the dangers all around him and constantly invoked divine protection as he went about his missionary and pastoral labors.
Honoring St. Patrick Today
One key means by which the Orthodox Church honors its saints is by remembering them on their feast day. Usually during the Vespers and Matins service preceding the Liturgy, we hear a short summary of the saint’s life and sing a hymn celebrating God’s work in that saint’s life. The Orthodox Church in America’s website posted the two hymns for St. Patrick’s feast day:
Troparion — Tone 3
Holy Bishop Patrick, / Faithful shepherd of Christ’s royal flock, / You filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel: / The mighty strength of the Trinity! / Now that you stand before the Savior, / Pray that He may preserve us in faith and love!
Kontakion — Tone 4
From slavery you escaped to freedom in Christ’s service: / He sent you to deliver Ireland from the devil’s bondage. / You planted the Word of the Gospel in pagan hearts. / In your journeys and hardships you rivaled the Apostle Paul! / Having received the reward for your labors in heaven, / Never cease to pray for the flock you have gathered on earth, / Holy bishop Patrick!