Was St. Patrick a Murderer? Why Did He Write His Confession?

stained glass window showing St. Patrick preaching to his Irish disciples

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This is one of the biggest mysteries, if not the biggest mystery, surrounding St. Patrick. Let me the lay groundwork for you:

Back when Patrick was undergoing his religious training, he made a confession to one of his closest friends. This was how the Catholic concept of  “confession” went down back in Patrick’s time. It was a declaration one made publicly, or to a friend. So Patrick, following standard operating procedure, spilled the beans: At age fifteen, before he was kidnapped, Patrick committed a sin. In his own words, it was something he had done “in one hour.”

Decades later, that hour-long lapse in judgment would come back to haunt him.

Pssst. You can watch a video adaptation of this article right here:

As we’ve already touched upon, Patrick’s contemporaries, including his own family back in Britain, were none-too-happy about his going to Ireland. They couldn’t understand why he’d want to leave the “civilized” Roman world to go preach to a bunch of (what they considered to be) barbarians. They didn’t trust him. And when they learned that Patrick would sometimes pay Irish kings for protection, so that he might have access to potential converts (something Patrick freely admitted to), they lashed out. To quote Terry O’Hagan:

“[Patrick] was accused of having ulterior motives for going back to Ireland on his own volition. His ability to attract healthy donations and his dispensing of payments to pagans was viewed as highly suspicious. They seem to have accused him of financial irregularities and profiteering from Christian services. Patrick’s defense against such claims was that this was the cultural reality on the ground. He categorically denied personally profiting from any such activities and presents his mission as one which was constantly spending whatever it received on further expansion and security.”

source: “Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up” (JSTOR Daily)

These attacks are what prompted Patrick to write his Confession. The attacks culminated in Patrick’s “close friend” betraying him and making public the sin he had already confessed to some thirty years earlier.

But if you take the time to peruse Patrick’s Confession, you might notice something: Patrick’s hour-long lapse in judgment is conspicuously absent. He doesn’t mention the sin. The people want to know, Patrick: What was it?

Considering he was fifteen at the time, an age when hormones are notoriously raging, a sin of a sexual nature seems plausible. However, some scholars suggest that participation in a pagan ritual is a more likely candidate, as sexual sins weren’t really considered a big deal back then, and whatever this sin was, the Church hierarchy took it seriously. Here’s Juilene Osborne-McKnight’s explanation of the pagan-ritual sin theory:

“Patrick grew up in a Romanized area that was being abandoned by the Roman soldiery, who were being called back to the mother country. Many Romans practiced a pagan religion called Mithraism, based on a Persian boy who slays a white bull, returns fertility to the harvest, and is rewarded with life in heaven. This was an appealing and hopeful religion for soldiers who were trained and paid to fight and die. Perhaps Patrick participated in one of their temple ceremonies. We will never know.”

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

Thomas Cahill has another theory, however, one that connects the sin of Patrick’s youth to older Patrick’s abhorrence of violence. It is a sin of a serious enough nature that Patrick would have felt compelled to share it—to unburden himself of it—prior to his ordination. To quote Cahill:

My guess is that the sin was murder. He was fifteen—and how many sins are available to a fifteen-year-old that would still bother him by midlife, especially after a life as various and harsh as Patrick’s?…Despite Augustine’s later preoccupations, sexual sins were not high on most people’s lists those days. Theft on a grand scale would have been even more unlikely, given his family’s atmosphere and attentiveness. But murder, especially of a slave or servant, would have borne no social consequences—nor would it have meant much to the murderer until he found himself at the receiving end of someone else’s brutality. In any case, the ferocity of this normally placid, quiet man courses to the surface only when slavery or human carnage is the subject.”

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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