When Caesar’s sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.
GK Chesterton, Ballad of the White Horse
It is easy to lose sight of the historical Saint Patrick in all the fun and frolic of Saint Patrick’s Day. He was a man of the fifth century and what a disastrous century it was for Patrick’s time and place. The Western Empire was going down under wave after wave of barbarian invasion, pagan when they were not loosely converted Arian heretics. Civilization was manifestly dying and Catholicism seemed to be faced with extinction, as it would almost entirely be extinguished in Patrick’s homeland of Britain in the terrible decades to come. Patrick’s capture by Irish pirates and being held as a slave was typical of the fate of many Christians as the law and order of the old Empire became a fading utopian dream. In these circumstances Patrick could have been forgiven for running and hiding in a cave as a Christian hermit, convinced that it was his fate and the fate of his generation to see the End Times predicted in Revelations.
Instead Patrick, after his escape from servitude, was filled with a burning zeal to convert the Irish, fired by a dream:
I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
Obtaining such education as could be had on the Continent, he was ordained, given the powers of a bishop, and sent back to the land of his slavery and labored night and day to bring the Irish into the light of Christ. By the end of his life he could truly say that he had found Ireland entirely pagan and now it was mostly Christian. His mission was one of pure Christian optimism in the face of disaster when most rational men would have told him that what he was doing was all for naught. Instead, in the ages to come, Ireland became the fabled land of saints and scholars, where western civilization was maintained in the darkest of centuries and where the true sons and daughters of Saint Patrick, Catholic missionaries, brought the light of Christ back to lands which had forgotten Him. It was a grand story, and no miracle attributed to Saint Patrick can surpass what he accomplished in cold historical fact.