In the midst of Lent, we continue to give heed to words we heard on Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel: “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart” (Joel 2:12). Besides being reconciled to God by making a good sacramental confession, we also need to be reconciled with our neighbor. Jesus made this very explicit when he said: “if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15). This is very clear, and yet can be extremely difficult at the same time, especially if one has been the recipient of grave harm or injury from another.
Perhaps St. Patrick would make a good fellow traveler as we continue through these 40 days. He is a great example for us as he cooperated with God’s grace in returning to the Lord with his whole heart, was reconciled to God and strove to reconcile with his neighbor. Not only did he forgive those who harmed him during his life, but was also able to turn moments of intense sorrow and suffering into occasions of giving thanks to God! I think three specific events in his life stand out in this regard.
At the age of 16, while staying at his father’s estate in Britain, Patrick was taken by Irish raiders and sold as a slave in Ireland. He spent the next six years as a servant, shepherding his master’s flock. During his captivity, he had a dream in which he was told to escape and that a boat was ready for his departure. He acted on this and did eventually make it home.
Not only was Patrick later able to forgive his captors, but he also saw God’s Providence in his captivity. It is reminiscent in a way of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and later saving them during the time of the great famine. Patrick saw his time in captivity as a time of conversion and purification, for he admits in his Confession, that although he was the son of a deacon, he had not known the true God and had turned away from Him. Yet in his captivity, he was strengthened in faith and really grew to love prayer. He had also been able to understand the local language as he was there for six years, which would be very helpful later on.
Through all this, he was able to forgive, because if he did not, he would not have responded to the inspiration from God when he saw in a vision at night, a man coming to him with many letters. The letter Patrick was given had these words at the top: “The voice of the Irish.” As he read on, he thought he heard their voices cry out “We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.”
Naturally, it is not easy to forgive, and one can easily see Patrick’s humanity when he stated in his Confessions: “And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up.” He did, however, respond to the call. After being trained and instructed, he was ordained as a deacon, priest and even a bishop in his own country before returning to Ireland as the successor of another bishop who had died.
St. Patrick also recounted an attack he suffered, in his Confession, from a number of his superiors who brought up against him an embarrassing and shameful sin he had committed as a youth. Patrick had confided this sin, before his ordination to the diaconate, to a close friend of his and this friend later betrayed him by breaking confidence. This was a friend, who even had told Patrick earlier that he should be raised to the rank of bishop! Needless to say, this betrayal hurt St. Patrick very much, but he was able to forgive his friend and even gave thanks to God for strengthening him during that severe and embarrassing trial and for the fact that God did not allow it to frustrate the mission he was given in preaching to the Irish. In fact, he said it strengthened his trust in God!
A third example is an account given of a British Prince named Coroticus, who sent his soldiers to plunder parts of Ireland. They killed some of Patrick’s new converts and sold others into slavery. This happened to be the day after his converts were baptized and confirmed! St. Patrick wrote a bold letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, condemning their actions and calling them enemies of Christ. Patrick boldly condemned the act that was carried out and yet did not rule out mercy as he forbid the faithful to have any associations with those who did these wicked deeds, unless they repented, did penance and freed the remaining baptized servants. Even though the innocent were slaughtered, and Patrick made clear that the act was a grave injustice, he knew as well that no act was beyond God’s mercy if one truly repented. Again, even in this tragic situation, Patrick could both grieve and give thanks to God. He addressed his dear spiritual children who were slaughtered, as he wrote in his letter: “I grieve for you, I grieve my dearly beloved. But again, I rejoice within myself…thanks be to God, you have left the world and have gone to Paradise as baptized faithful.”
As we continue through this journey of Lent, we can look to St. Patrick, a man who, aware of his weakness and sinfulness, was reconciled to God, forgave those who injured him, and was docile to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, giving him the strength to spread the faith and conquer the paganism that covered a nation!
Br. Patrick Mary, MFVA