Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Saint Patrick - Preaching Where no Man Has Gone Before?

As we continue the series of posts in honour of Saint Patrick based on a series of questions posed by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín in a 2001 paper, we arrive at one of the biggest questions of all - what was the nature of the objections of the elders (seniores) in Britain to the man and his mission? Our scholar provides this insight:
Part of the difficulty which Patrick's activities presented to his superiors was his manifest concern to preach the gospel among the heathen Irish. He several times remarks that he has taken the Christian message 'where no man has gone before' (Conf. 34) and that such efforts involved him and his companions in physical danger (Conf. 51). It was this physical dangers that drew down the displeasure of his seniores on Patrick.

Now this might strike a modern reader as curious, for one naturally assumes that an element of danger is part of any missionary endeavour. There is always a risk that the message will not be received favourably and the messenger violently rejected.  Later Irish saints, like Killian, for example, found this out in their labours among the Germanic pagan peoples and were martyred for their pains. But Ó Cróinín sets this objection into its historical context and it is one which indeed seems counter-intuitive to the contemporary reader:

The reason for it was that the early church in this period had no concept of mission to the unbelieving, of the kind that we are familiar with today from the work of Christian missionaries in Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The post-apostolic Church developed no conscious institutionalised missionary effort or personnel, conversion as a rule, was sporadic and individual, rather than communal. Palladius, after all, had been sent to 'the Irish believing in Christ' not to the heathen. 

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, 'Saint Patrick', in A .J. Hughes and W. Nolan, eds., Armagh: History and Society - Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County (Dublin, 2001), 55.

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