Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ireland's Saint: The Essential Biography of St. Patrick

By J.B. Bury, hardcover 205 pages, $21.95, Paraclete Press, ISBN 978-1-55725-557-0.

In this reprint of the 1905 original, the fabled Irish historian J.B. Bury uses legends and facts to show how St. Patrick didn't introduce the faith to Ireland. Rather, he consolidated and united the faith that already existed, as was the case with countless other Christian missionaries in early medieval Europe. From that foundation, yes, he did evangelize.

Great missionaries like Saints Boniface, Cyril and Methodius, and Patrick, were organizers as much as preachers. For instance, one of St. Patrick's central achievements was making Latin the ecclesiastical language of Irish Christianity.

Latin gave unity to Ireland at a time when the island's various tribes and clans, kings and sub-kings, were disunited and therefore constantly squabbling and warring with each other. The Druids had failed to created a united nation with one leader. The consolidation of Christianity and the use of Latin would have drawn many people and their leaders to the new religion in the hope that this disunity could come to an end.

Latin's prestige was another major reason for its importance. As Bury points out, Ireland never came under Rome's direct rule. Yet, because Ireland was so close to Roman Britain and Gaul, and the Celtic peoples were a skilled seafaring lot, the country had been considerably influenced by the Empire, and like all barbarian folk, they would have looked upon Rome and her language with a certain mystical awe.

Patrick therefore never translated the Bible into one of Ireland's languages. Building a church meant building church culture, and Latin was to be the medium of that.

As an efficient organizer, St. Patrick would have targeted the ruling classes. He needed to build a national church hierarchy, and this demanded well-trained priests and monks who could live off of the land. Bury makes the case that, in Patrick's view, the Irish church would never get off the ground with only peasant converts. It needed the support of the aristocracy so it could build up enough wealth to support church culture and structure.

Ireland's Saint is at times almost magical reading because Bury respects the legends surrounding the saint. Rather than rejecting them or, worse, deconstructing and treating them with condescension, he uses them as sources for history. He recounts with relish the tall-tales surrounding St. Patrick, as when the saint gets into magical combat with local Druids over such things as burning buildings (and the people inside) to the ground as a way to show the power of his God over that of the Druids.

Bury appreciates the theological and historical significance of such stories, as the various legends showed Patrick's charisma, the incipient faith of the Irish, or the Druids' fear of the new creed.

Bury the Irishman understood his people's poetic thinking. He regarded the legends surrounding the saint as the Irish way of assimilating St. Patrick's Christian teaching into their culture. Ireland's Saint shows how the saint and the Christianization of Ireland in no way destroyed Irish culture, but rather complemented it and brought it to its full potential:

“Patrick was as fully convinced as the pagan that the powers of magicians were real, but he knew that those powers were strictly limited, while the power of his own God was limitless....This point of intellectual agreement between the pre-Enlightenment Christian priest and the heathen, their common acceptance of the efficacy of sorcery, even though they put different interpretations on its conditions, was probably a significant aid in the propagation of the Christian religion.”

Ireland's Saint gives us a good understanding of the hows and whys of ancient and early medieval evangelization: “If Christianity had offered to people only its new theological doctrine with the hope of eternal life and its new ethical ideals; if it had come simple and unadorned without an armory of mysteries, miracles, and rites; if it had risen to the height of rejecting magic not because it was wicked but because it was absurd – it could never have won half the world.”

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