Was St. Patrick Catholic?

illustration of the pope commissioning st. patrick

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Considering that he studied to become a Roman Catholic bishop, and that he’s included among the Catholic Church’s list of saints, it seems obvious that St. Patrick was Catholic. Indeed, some St. Patrick aficionados, Seumas MacManus included, become indignant at the suggestion that he was otherwise:

“In recent times several ingenious people have demonstrated to their own complete satisfaction that Patrick was a Protestant, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Baptist—a Jew even—almost everything except what he was—and that he founded in Ireland in an independent church which they call the Celtic Church. These absurd contentions are set at rest—if they needed setting at rest—by the Canon of St. Patrick, preserved in the old Book of Armagh—which was finished by the scribed Firdomnach in 807—a Canon which those very learned Protestant Irish scholars, Usher and Whitley Stokes, accept as proof of his Roman authority and affiliation.”

source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

A couple things to unpack here:

First, the source MacManus cites as indisputable proof of St. Patrick’s Catholicism was set down, by his own admission, centuries after the era in which St. Patrick lived (and preached). While an interesting historical artifact, the Canon of St. Patrick—unlike St. Patrick’s Confession and Letter to Coroticus—cannot be directly attributed to the man himself.

Second, while St. Patrick likely would’ve considered himself a Catholic, it’s also likely (as we explored in an earlier post) that he went to Ireland without the official blessing of the Roman Catholic Church. What’s more, the “flavor” of Christianity he introduced to Ireland—or at least the one that took hold there—was undoubtedly different from what Church leaders were teaching back in Rome. To quote Juilene Osborne-McKnight:

“[O]ne has the feeling that by the end of his life, Patrick has become ‘more Irish than the Irish,’ that he has come to love his converts and his adopted land. What he never did achieve, however, was any sense of converting the Irish to a Romanized version of Christianity.

source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans

The legacy of St. Patrick clearly isn’t the legacy of a man who eradicated paganism in Ireland and replaced it with a pure, Church-approved version of Catholicism. There was, to a certain degree, a blending of beliefs and ideologies. One only has to look at the current state of affairs—and celebrations—in Catholic Ireland and throughout the Irish-Catholic diaspora to see that this was the case. As Thomas Cahill explains:

“Unlike the continental church fathers, the Irish never troubled themselves overmuch about eradicating pagan influences, which they tended to wink at and enjoy. The pagan festivals continued to be celebrated, which is why we today can still celebrate the Irish feasts of May Day [Beltaine / Beltane] and Hallowe’en [Samin / Samhain].”

source: How the Irish Saved Civilization

Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from “20 Questions With St. Patrick: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the ‘Apostle of Ireland’”

Further Reading

The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

by Seumas MacManus

Per the publisher: “A classic history of the Irish people from their prehistoric origins to their fight for independence in twentieth century. It provides fascinating insight into the origins of their culture, religion, laws, arts, antiquities, folklore, trade, literature, heroes, and more. MacManus sketches brilliant overviews of a number of the most famous figures from the country’s past, some of whom, like St. Patrick, allowed the Irish to flourish, whilst others, like Oliver Cromwell, persecuted them. ” Learn more…

How the Irish Saved Civilization

by Thomas Cahill

Per the publisher: “Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become ‘the isle of saints and scholars’ — and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians.” Learn more…

The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans

by Juilene Osborne-McKnight

Per the publisher: “Many Irish-Americans today know little about Ireland and their ancestry. Historian Juilene Osborne-McKnight presents Irish-American history in a compelling narrative form, accented with photographs, illustrations, and original, literary interludes. Osborne-McKnight pays homage to her ancestry in this chronicle of the Irish from ancient times to contemporary America.” Learn more…

St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

by Philip Freeman

Per the publisher: “Ireland’s patron saint has long been shrouded in legend, but the true story of St. Patrick is far more inspiring than the myths. In St. Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life. Patrick speaks in his own voice in two remarkable letters he wrote about himself and his beliefs, new translations of which are included here and which are still astonishing for their passion and eloquence.” Learn more…


by Stephen Lawhead

Per the publisher: “Set in an era of brutal conflict and turmoil, this epic adventure is the first novel to tell the full story of the slave who became a saint, of the man who rose to the challenge of his time and changed the course of history. In the summer of 405AD, Irish raiders attack the western coast of Wales, carving a fiery swathe through the peaceful countryside. Among the survivors who are rounded up and taken back to Ireland is Succat: an impulsive sixteen-year-old son of a powerful Roman family.” Learn more…

Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

by Tomie dePaola

Per the publisher: “An illustrated tribute to the Irish patron saint from the best-selling author of Quiet, Strega Nona, and many others. This timeless picture book, available in large-format paperback or as the board book Saint Patrick, is a perfect introduction to important Irish legends and an ideal St. Patrick’s day gift. Beloved children’s book author-illustrator Tomie dePaola recounts the life of Saint Patrick—from his noble birth in Britain, to his captivity in Ireland, to the visions which led him to return and found the first Christian church in Ireland.” Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

by multiple authors

A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales. Learn more…

More book ideas:

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