Sunday 18 March 2018

Saint Patrick and the Staff of Jesus

We begin an octave of posts in honour of the Feast of Saint Patrick with a look at one of the most famous of the relics associated with our national apostle, the Bachall Ísu (Íosa), or Staff of Jesus. Over the coming days we will examine the traditions surrounding this fascinating artefact, sadly now no longer extant, and to look at what modern scholarship has to say. We can begin with an account by Archbishop John Healy (1841-1918), taken from his monumental 1905 work, The Life and Writings of Saint Patrick. He devoted Appendix V to a discussion of The Relics of Saint Patrick. The written traditions on the Bachall Ísu were collected by the great seventeenth-century hagiologist, Father John Colgan, from manuscripts preserved mostly in continental Europe. The Lives of Patrick as Colgan catalogued them are discussed by Archbishop Healy in the Introduction to his book and here in Appendix V he also gives us a useful introduction to the classification of relics:


We use the word 'Relics' here in its widest sense to include all those things that are specially worthy of veneration on account of their intimate connection with our National Apostle. They are of two classes, (i) the martra, or corporeal relics of the Saint ; and (2) the minna or extrinsic relics which are worthy of veneration because they were the personal implements used by the Saint in discharge of his duties, and hence came to be regarded as the insignia or symbols of his high office as the Head of the Irish Church. Hence, also, these holy minna, sanctified by the use of the Saint, came to be held in the highest veneration, and, as the sacred symbols of the primatial office, were regarded as indispensable for the exercise of the primatial functions. The prelate who had the minna of St. Patrick in this way came to be regarded as the true comarb of Patrick; without them no one was regarded as his lawful successor. The most venerable of the minna of St. Patrick, from this point of view, was the Staff of Jesus.

 1. — The Staff of Jesus, or Bachall-Iosa. The early history of this most venerable relic has been admirably summed up by Colgan in a special dissertation on the subject. It is not long, but it is clear and accurate so far as it goes. 

Following the chronological order, the earliest writer who refers to the Staff of Jesus is probably the author of the Third Life. He merely states that Patrick ' having set out on his journey to Rome went to a certain hermit, who dwelt in a certain place ; from him Patrick received the Staff, which had been in the hand of Jesus Christ, our Lord, that under its guidance or companionship he might be prosperous in his (missionary) journey, and the Staff remains to this day in the City of Armagh, and is called the Baculus Jesu, or Staff of Jesus.' 

It will be noticed that the writer here does not determine in any way the place where the person from whom Patrick received the Staff dwelt, beyond saying that he was a hermit dwelling in a certain place.

The Fourth Life goes further, and says that Patrick on his voyage through the Tyrrhene Sea ' received the Staff of Jesus from a certain youth who dwelt in a certain island, and there had given hospitality to Jesus Christ. ' It adds, however, that the Lord spoke to Patrick on the mountain, and commanded him to come to Ireland. The 'island' and the 'youth' are not determined; but the statement of a special command given to Patrick by our Lord himself is strikingly borne out by his own words in the Confession, where he says that Christ the Lord commanded him to come to Ireland and spend the rest of his life with his converts in that country.

Jocelyn amplifies these brief accounts, — saying that the hermit or solitary was one Justus in name and indeed, that he gave to Patrick the Staff which the Lord Jesus, who had appeared to him, held in His own hand, and ordered to be given to Patrick as soon as he came to the island. There were other solitaries also, he adds, in the island, some young and some old, but all dwelling apart; the younger hermits told Patrick that they used to give hospitality to all comers, and on one occasion they gave it to a Person who had the Staff in His hand, and this Person said, after partaking of their hospitality, " I am Jesus Christ, whose members you have been ministering to, even as now you have done to Myself" — thereupon He gave the Staff which He held in His hand to their superior, with instructions to give it to a certain stranger called Patrick who would come there in later times. — Having thus spoken He ascended into Heaven, but He left to them of that generation the gift of perpetual youth in reward of their charity; whilst the peaceful old men whom Patrick saw were their children, who did not enjoy the same privilege. So Patrick took the Staff from the Elder, and having remained for some days with the holy solitaries bade them farewell and went on his way rejoicing.

 It will be observed here that there is no question of a personal appearance of our Saviour to Patrick, nor any special mandate given to him to preach the gospel in Ireland.

But the Tripartite gives a fuller, and perhaps, more satisfactory, explanation than any of the other Lives. According to this venerable authority Patrick on his voyage through the Tyrrhene Sea came to a certain island, and found there a new house, in which a young married couple dwelt, but he saw also an old woman scarcely able to crawl along the ground. The young man then informed him that long ago when exercising hospitality they had received Jesus Christ Himself as their guest, that He, in return for their charity, gave them and their house a blessing, which preserved both from decay, but that the blessing was not given to their children, who were not then born. In consequence the children grew old in the ordinary way, and the old crone whom he saw was the granddaughter of the speaker, that is the daughter of his daughter, who was a still older and more decrepit woman.

The Staff which our Saviour held in His hands He then gave to the young man. His host, with instructions to keep it safely for a certain stranger who would thereafter visit them, and was the destined apostle of Ireland. And so he offered the Staff to Patrick. But Patrick said, "No, I will not take it except the Lord Himself confirms this donation as His own." He then spent three days with them, and thereafter he came to the mountain called Hermon, where the Lord himself condescended to appear to him, and commanded him to preach the Gospel to the Irish people, and at the same time gave him the staff, which is ' now everywhere called the Staff of Jesus,' to be his stay in weakness, and his defence in adversity. Then follows a long catalogue of all the wonders which Patrick had accomplished during his missionary career by the instrumentality of the Staff of Jesus. So far the Lives.

Now, it appears to us the one strong point in this narrative — for it is substantially one narrative — is that the Special Mission from Jesus Christ referred to as given to Patrick, directly or indirectly, is confirmed by his own language in the Confession, for that language undoubtedly implies an immediate supernatural mission from his Divine Master. He who admits this will have little difficulty in admitting that our Lord would at the same time, and naturally, as it were, give him a Crozier to be a proof of that mission, for the Crozier is the symbol of episcopal authority ; and if the mission was thus extraordinary and supernatural we might naturally expect that the Crozier too would be given in a supernatural way. Such, at least, was the belief in Ireland down to the time of Henry VIII. , for all the authorities admit that the Staff was held in the highest veneration, and all without exception call it the Staff of Jesus — many of them, too, explaining the origin of the name.

St. Bernard first of all calls especial attention to the Crozier, gold-covered and adorned with most precious gems, which Nigellus the pseudo-primate carried off with him from Armagh, and along with the Book of Patrick exhibited as undoubted proofs of his own claim to the primacy. " For," he adds, "the foolish people thought that he who possessed these venerable relics was indeed the true successor of St, Patrick." 

Gerald Barry, too, refers to the Staff of Jesus as the most famous and wonder-working Crozier in all Ireland. It was by it, he says, that St. Patrick is said to have driven all venomous reptiles from the island; and, although its origin is doubtful, its virtue is undoubted (certissima). ' In our times, and by our people, this celebrated treasure has been taken away from Armagh and brought to Dublin.'  There for more than 300 years it was preserved and venerated as of old in Armagh. It was kept in the Cathedral of Christ Church until George Browne, the apostate friar and first Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, had it forcibly taken from the Cathedral and publicly burned in High Street, to the great horror and indignation of all the people.

Most Rev. J. Healy, The Life and Writings of St. Patrick, (Dublin, 1905), Appendix V, 633-636.

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