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

Want to learn more about Saint Patrick? Check out…

Saint Patrick in Your Pocket

Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…

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