Lenten Saints

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith (Heb 12:1-2).

Our opening quotation from the Letter to the Hebrews provides us with context for approaching these two feast days of (chronologically) St. Patrick and St. Joseph, both of which occur during the holy season of Lent. Hebrews reminds us of our corporate identity in Christ, that we are not simply individuals who happen to be Christian, but rather that we are members of Christ’s whole and holy body, in that phrase of St. Augustine the totus Christus, the whole Christ, head and members.

That is the meaning behind “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Remembering these witnesses, we are spurred on toward a fuller and deeper communion in Christ-with-God. We keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, yes, but on March 17 and March 19 we celebrate in a special way two witnesses who help us stay focused on Jesus by exemplifying special qualities of the Christian life.

March 17, Commemoration of St. Patrick (c. 385-c. 461)

St. Patrick is very popular among the Irish and, indeed, has become something of a cultural figure in the United States. Not too many people, however, recall that he is a patristic figure, to be reckoned with the fathers and the mothers of the early church and, moreover, a part of the early church about which we know so very little: Christianity in Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries. He was a Christian bishop “from the embattled edge of a crumbling (Roman) Empire.”

Thomas O’Loughlin, a specialist in Celtic Christianity, history and theology is led to say, “Patrick is probably the best-known fifth-century Christian in the world today. Theologians may argue that Augustine (354-430) was, and perhaps still is, more influential for how Christians present their beliefs, but how many New Yorkers parade on Aug. 28 (Augustine’s feast day)?”

How, exactly, Christianity arrived in Britain is unknown, but possibly it came about through anonymous traders and soldiers, sharing their newfound faith with others. If so, this would be a premier example of what we might call the “old evangelization”! Ordinary people witnessing to their faith in pagan territory, and winning others to the love of Christ.

There are two texts which are safely ascribed to Patrick, the Confession of St. Patrick and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, the Letter probably written first. In fact, these are the only two documents that can be claimed to come from the Church in Britain/Ireland in the fifth century. That makes them doubly precious.

They are compared with the works of other patristic authors who were Patrick’s contemporaries and warmly described by Thomas O’Loughlin as follows: “While the sermons of Caesarius of Arles and the wise instructions of Eucherius of Lyons bring us face to face with profound Christian learning, Patrick’s works bring us a living human being. We read Patrick’s two surviving documents and feel we are coming into contact with a real man of flesh and blood. We sense that he puts himself into his writings; we sense his hurts, angers, hopes and fears.”

What We Know

It is from the Confession that we derive what we know about Patrick. The confession is a literary genre, of which two major extant examples in ancient literature are the Confessions of St. Augustine, written about 400 when he was a comparatively young man, and the Confession of St. Patrick, written during the fifth century, possibly some short time before his death.”

Patrick was born in Britain about 385 of a Christian family in Roman Britain. He was the son of a decurio (civic official), who was also a deacon, and his name was Calpurnius. A decurio raised taxes for the imperial Roman government, but what he failed to raise he had to make good out of his own pocket. We are also informed that Patrick was the grandson of a presbyter, Potitus.

According to the scholars, Patrick’s first language was probably an early form of Celtic; his second language was fifth-century Latin. His birthplace is called Bannavem Taburniae, which means something like “at Bannavem of the tavern.” Its precise location is simply unknown. However, speculation may be a little fruitful here.

The shortest sea crossing from Britain to Ireland was from Galloway in Southwest Scotland, where we know there was a Christian community by ca. 500 at the latest. That is a fact. Patrick’s one known correspondent, Coroticus, was an ally of the Northern Picts. That too is a fact, and the fact that would likely place his birthplace in Southwest Scotland, possibly Strathclyde, or possibly Galloway.

Scottish church historian Alan Macquarrie argues well, though not indisputably, for Southwest Scotland as the provenance of Patrick. Other scholars — for example, Richard P.C. Hanson — locate “Bannavem of the tavern” in Southwest Britain. Perhaps, along with Alan Macquarrie, I ought to let my ethnocentricity — I was born in the west of Scotland — win out on this occasion.

Máire de Paor, a historian of Celtic Christianity, having reconstructed what is possible to know about Roman Britain, describes with great probability Patrick’s situation:

Patrick is in what would seem to be a relatively peaceful and stable enclave of Roman Britain, a free man, living in a Roman city, receiving a Roman education, spending his holidays at his father’s estate in the country, with servants at his beck and call, complete with all the luxuries of a Roman villa; he is secure in his father’s love, enjoys noble status, with many friends in an area where there is a large concentration of Christians; this energetic, carefree, thoughtless youth is protected by both Roman and British law and can express himself in two languages. His worldly future seems secured. . . . Then, suddenly, disaster strikes!

The disaster was his enslavement.

Patrick’s First Conversion

At about age 16, somewhere between the Clyde estuary in the West of Scotland and the River Severn in the southwest of England, Patrick was seized and enslaved by Irish raiders — a common experience whereby raiders would come by boat to coastal areas to find slaves. According to his own account he was put to work as a shepherd in the West of Ireland for six years, at a place called Silva Vocluti, “the forest of Foclut,” “beside the western sea.” This latter term “the western sea” is undoubtedly the Atlantic Ocean. It may be the case that “the forest of Foclut” is the Wood of Fochoill, Killala Bay, County Mayo.

Before his capture Patrick tells us: “I did not know the true God” (Confession, No. 1). Interpretation of the meaning of these words varies, but it may be nothing more than the fact that as a youth prior to his capture he did not take his Christian faith too seriously. The eminent Latinist Ludwig Bieler writes: “For the worldly youth that he had been, though a nominal Christian, captivity had become a means of spiritual conversion.” It may be the case that like his contemporary, St. Augustine, while he came from a Christian family his own baptism was deferred until a later time when he was ready to make a definitive commitment.

Of this difficult period in his life Patrick wrote: “After I came to Ireland — every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed — the love of God and his fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain. And — come hail, rain or snow — I was up before dawn to pray, and I sensed no evil for spiritual laziness within. I now understand this: at that time ‘the Spirit was fervent’ in me” (Confession, No. 16). This fervent turning to God in prayer is usually referred to as Patrick’s first conversion.

Encouraged by a dream, he escaped, and made his way some 200 miles to the east coast of Ireland, and there he found what was probably a pirate ship. After a voyage of three days, the ship probably landed in Britain, though Patrick does not actually name the place. Eventually he made his way back to his home. “And after a few years I was again with my parents in Britain who welcomed me home as a son. They begged me in good faith after all my adversities to go nowhere else, not ever leave them again” (Confession, No. 23). The wish of Patrick’s parents was not to be granted.

Patrick’s Second Conversion

Again, as a result of a dream, Patrick made the decision to train for the priesthood. In this dream he hears the pagan Irish making a request of him, in language reminiscent of St. Paul’s experience at Troas in Acts 16: 9-10: “We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.” Patrick is, of course, writing in Latin, and he was certainly bilingual and even trilingual — Latin, his own native British language which would have been a form of early Celtic, and Irish.

His Latin is often described as crude and inelegant, suggesting that his theological formation took place somewhere in Britain, though other interpreters locate his priestly formation in France, as a disciple of St. Germanus of Auxerre (c. 378-c. 448). During this time, he confessed a sin to a close friend, perhaps a spiritual director before ordination. Máire de Paor suggests that this sin may have been idolatry, i.e., sun-worship, something that was prominent in the Druid communities of Britain and Ireland.

According to the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-c. 463), in 431 Palladius was sent to the Irish as their first bishop. Prosper’s text lists important events in history with their dates. Although he depended upon lists of dates for events prior to his own life and time, it is generally recognized that for the period approximately 425-455 Prosper is reliable.

For the year 431 he makes this statement: “Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine, was sent to the Irish, who are believers in Christ, as their first bishop.” We know nothing more about this man than this. “What prompted this action, who Palladius was, and what happened to him are all unknown. This sentence in Prosper is the one occasion that Palladius appears on the radar screen of history.” So, it appears to be the case that there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick arrived. Patrick was appointed Palladius’s successor, so he must have been at least 30 years of age, the minimum age for bishops.

At this time in the development of Christianity, in Roman towns and cities people had largely been converted to Christianity. The country people, however, were still largely pagan, and there was no sustained or organized effort to go out to convert the pagans. Patrick set about evangelizing the country-folk. Máire de Paor notes: “Patrick’s mission to the Irish pagans was the exception. This fact alone gives him a unique place in the history of the Church.”

Patrick remained active as a bishop in Ireland for about 30 years. His mission concentrated on the northeast and possibly the northwest of Ireland, where the Gospel had not been preached before. He secured the protection of local kings and chieftains, something that was necessary as he toured the country extensively making converts, given the omnipresence of the native Druids, a constant danger.

At this time in Ireland there were no cities in the Roman fashion. The Romans had never conquered the island. In the Christianized Roman Empire bishops and cities went together. Patrick established episcopal foundations with quasi-monastic chapters. He never mentions his own cathedral see, as it were, though Armagh may have been Patrick’s church. In the sources such as we have them Armagh is not actually mentioned as Patrick’s see before the seventh century.

Excommunication of Coroticus

Patrick tells us in his Confession that his mission to the Irish was severely criticized by the British clergy, his seniors — that is, senior bishops. The reasons for the criticism are various. He is accused of taking bribes for baptisms and ordinations. The sin that he had confessed earlier, as noted, probably Sun-worship, was made public by his friend. And, perhaps the ultimate reason, was Patrick’s demand for the excommunication of Coroticus.

Coroticus was a British prince, probably from Dumbarton on the River Clyde in Scotland, who had conducted retaliatory raids in Ireland, killing and enslaving Irish Christians. Patrick, of course, knew experientially what it was to be a slave, and he would have known about the sexual degradation to which women slaves were particularly subjected. He describes newly initiated Christians taken by Coroticus and his soldiers, with the oil of chrism scarcely dry on their foreheads. “The day after the anointed neophytes — still wearing their white baptismal garb and with the fragrance of the chrism on their foreheads still about them — were cut down and cruelly put to the sword by these men…” (Letter to Coroticus, No. 3).

Coroticus was a Christian and should have known better. Patrick requested that the leaders of the Christian community insist on Coroticus doing penance: “It is not lawful to seek favor from men such as these, nor to eat food or drink with them; nor to accept their alms until they make satisfaction to God with painful penance and the shedding of tears; and free the baptized servants of God and the handmaids of Christ — for whom he was crucified and died” (Letter to Coroticus, No. 7). It was necessary, he believed, that this enslaving chieftain do penance, but it was no less necessary in his judgment that he free the slaves who were baptized. Patrick is the earliest Christian writer formally to protest slavery.

The place of Patrick’s death and burial are unknown, but tradition and scholarship both maintain that the traditional location of Downpatrick, County Down, and the north of Ireland seems probable.

The following extract from the Confession of St. Patrick (Nos. 14-16) gives us an indication of his prayer life. It is taken from the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours from March 17:

I give unceasing thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the day of my testing. Today I can offer him sacrifice with confidence, giving myself as a living victim to Christ, my Lord, who kept me safe through all my trials. . . . God showed me how to have faith in him for ever, as one who is never to be doubted. He answered my prayer in such a way that in the last days, ignorant though I am, I might be bold enough to take up so holy and so wonderful a task, and imitate in some degree those whom the Lord had so long ago foretold as heralds of His Gospel, bearing witness to all nations. . . .How did so great and salutary a gift come to me, the gift of knowing and loving God, though at the cost of homeland and family? I came to the Irish peoples to preach the Gospel and endure the taunts of unbelievers, putting up with reproaches about my earthly pilgrimage, suffering many persecutions, even bondage, and losing my birthright of freedom for the benefit of others. If I am worthy, I am ready also to give up my life, without hesitation and most willingly, for His name. I want to spend myself in that country, even in death, if the Lord should grant me this favor. . . . It is among that people that I want to wait for the promise made by Him, who assuredly never tells a lie. . . . This is our faith: believers are to come from the whole world.

It is easy to hear behind these words echoes of St. Paul and his letters. At the same time, one has the strong impression that these words are coming straight from the heart of Patrick. The prayer begins with a strong sense of gratitude: “I give unceasing thanks to my God. . . .” He acknowledges what his mission to the Irish peoples has cost him personally: “. . .the gift of knowing and loving God, though at the cost of homeland and family,” and his life as a witness to evangelization, to living in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ: “This is our faith: believers are to come from the whole world.”

The words of the prayer come over as lacking any sense of pretense, as genuine and authentic, prayer coming from the inner depths of Patrick. Irish-born patristic scholar and Anglican bishop Richard P.C. Hanson writes of St. Patrick at prayer: “Clearly Patrick was a great man of prayer, and his prayer was nourished on biblical imagery and biblical language. . . . There is nothing whatever artificial or forced or extravagant about it. His piety is warm, deep, living, and never insincere.”

March 19, Feast of St. Joseph

If we know so little about the historical St. Patrick, we know very much less about the historical St. Joseph. Patrick has written two texts about which we may be certain, but Joseph wrote nothing. Joseph was a common name in Judaism of the first century A.D., after the Patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob.

St Joseph
St. Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, foster father of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, knew the Torah and lived it. The Crosiers photo

Outside the infancy narratives of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, we have just a handful of incidental references to Joseph. In Matthew 13:55 he is not named but is described as “the carpenter.” In Luke 3:23 Joseph is named as the “supposed” father of Jesus. In John 1:45 the same point is made as Jesus is described as the “son of Joseph.” The same description is made in John 6:42.

Matthew 13:55, describes Joseph as a tekton, a “woodworker,” or “carpenter” (see also Mark 6:3). He probably worked hard for a living, but it does not seem that the holy family would have lived necessarily in grinding poverty. Sepphoris, Herod’s new capital city of Galilee, was a well-to-do city, a city that would have offered plenty of work to a woodworker/carpenter, and it was just a few miles from Nazareth. We should probably imagine Joseph, perhaps accompanied by Jesus, working regularly in Sepphoris.

Joseph would probably not only have taught Jesus his own trade of tekton, but also something of the religious traditions and texts of Judaism because, as Msgr. John P. Meier puts it, Jesus certainly had “a reading knowledge imparted either directly by Joseph or by some more learned Jew procured for the purpose.”

Jewish historian Geza Vermes speculates a little more on Joseph as a carpenter. He makes the point that the terms “carpenter” and “son of a carpenter” are used in the Talmud to indicate a learned man. Though Vermes recognizes that it is impossible to be absolutely sure that the sayings in the Talmud were already in circulation in first-century A.D. Galilee, nonetheless he concludes that such connections may be age-old. And so he posits the possibility that a description of Joseph as nagger, the Hebrew word for “carpenter,” might indicate that he was considered wise and well-versed in the Torah. If that were so, Joseph would have been in an excellent position to pass on his Judaism to Jesus.

Art and popular imagination have usually pictured Joseph as an old man. But this is surely a false idea. This idea of Joseph as an old man is widespread. One example from a recent novel by Baroness P.D. James, as she describes a painting of the holy family is as follows:

“Mary was seated on a low stool with the naked Christ child resting on a white cloth on her lap. Her face was a pale and perfect oval, the mouth tender under a narrow nose, the heavily lidded eyes under thinly arced brows fixed on the child with an expression of resigned wonder. From a high smooth forehead the strands of crimped auburn hair fell over her blue mantle to the delicate hands and fingers barely touching in prayer. The child gazed up at her with both hands raised, as if foreshadowing the crucifixion. St. Joseph, red-coated, was seated to the right in the painting, a prematurely aged, half-sleeping custodian, heavily leaning on a stick.”

The depiction of Joseph as an old man is almost certainly wrong. The rabbis at the time taught that a man should be married about the age of 18, and one may take it as reasonably certain that that was Joseph’s age when he was engaged to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The image of Joseph as an older man comes from the mid-second century A.D. apocryphal text, The Protevangelium of James. In this immensely influential text, “a wildly imaginative folk narrative,” Joseph is portrayed as an older man, as a widower with children by his previous wife. The author of this text is seeking to protect the notion of Mary’s virginity, and so not only is Joseph portrayed as up in years, but also as having had children by a former marriage, thus accounting for the references in the Gospels to “the brothers of Jesus.”

The Infancy Narratives

The only other information about Joseph comes from Matthew 1-2, and Luke 1-2, the infancy narratives. Without getting into complex questions of historicity we may note with Msgr. John P. Meier the peculiarity of these narratives. “Even in these two Gospels, events in the Infancy Narratives are almost never referred to once Chapter 3 of each Gospel is reached. Thus, within Matthew and Luke themselves, the Infancy Narratives stand in relative isolation; they are distinct compositions stemming from traditions different from those found elsewhere in the Four Gospels — and indeed in the rest of the New Testament.” These observations of Meier should make us somewhat cautious in approaching the historicity of these texts. All serious scholars agree that the two narratives ought not to be conflated. Matthew and Luke have their own theological contributions to make, independently of one another. Joseph features prominently in Matthew, but only marginally in Luke.

Joseph Is Central

Apart from Jesus himself, the central character in Matthew’s infancy narrative is Joseph. We learn that he is disposed to Mary. Betrothal meant more than “engagement” in our sense, but less than complete marriage. It consisted of a formal contract that made the man and woman husband and wife. A betrothal ceremony took place at the home of the father of the bride. Mary would have remained in her parents’ home, and Joseph would have visited her from time to time until they came to live together as husband and wife. Conjugal infidelity on the part of a betrothed woman was regarded as adultery. The betrothal ceremony was followed after several months by the actual wedding, the ceremony by which the man received the woman into his house and consummated the marriage.

In Mt 1:18-25, we are told that Joseph noticed that Mary was pregnant, while she was betrothed to him. He was a “just” man, that is, an observant and pious Jew. The Torah did not allow him to consummate marriage with a woman who had been guilty of adultery during the period of betrothal. According to Deuteronomy 22:22-23, a woman who is betrothed but sleeps with another man is to be stoned to death. It is not clear how widespread this punishment was in the first century A.D. Whatever about that, from the text it seems that Joseph intends to put Mary through the much less public procedure of divorce. This is in line with an injunction of the Mishnah: “If she says, ‘I am defiled,’ she forfeits her marriage contract and goes forth.” After the revelation from God in a dream, Joseph “took Mary as wife,” that is, they went through with the second marital ceremony, the wedding. “He knew her not until she had borne a son” (Mt 1:25). The purpose of the statement is to insist on Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception.

Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

F.L. Filas, author of the article on St. Joseph in The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes that this text “says nothing one way or the other regarding the relations between Joseph and Mary after the birth of Jesus.” The Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary goes back to the very early Church, but it is not formally and explicitly implied in this statement from the Gospel. The reference to the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus in Mt 12:46-50; 13:55-56 is inconclusive with respect to actual siblings. It is simply a philological fact that the term “brothers and sisters” could and did refer not only to children of the same mother and father, but also to other relatives.

Nowhere is Joseph mentioned as present during the public ministry of Jesus. The supposition is that he had died by that time, almost certainly before he was 50 years of age. That premier pursuer of the historical Jesus, Msgr. John P. Meier, writes: “Granted that we do not know how old Joseph was when Jesus was born, and granted that life expectancy was much lower in the ancient world than in the United States today, there is nothing intrinsically improbable about Joseph’s death before Jesus reached the age of roughly 30 to 35. . . . In contrast, Mary lived through the public ministry and on into at least the early days of the Church. . . . She would have been roughly 48 to 50 years old at the time of his crucifixion.”

In the Office of Readings from March 19, the Church lays before us an extract from a sermon by the Franciscan St. Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444).

There is a general rule concerning all special graces granted to any human being. Whenever the divine favor chooses someone to receive a special grace, or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit needed to fulfill the task at hand. This general rule is especially verified in the case of St. Joseph, the foster father of our Lord and the husband of the Queen of our world, enthroned above the angels. . . . Holy Church in its entirety is indebted to the Virgin Mother because through her it was judged worthy to receive Christ. But after her we undoubtedly owe special gratitude to St. Joseph. In him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. He brought the noble line of patriarchs and prophets to its promise to fulfillment. What the divine goodness had offered as a promise to them, he held in his arms.

Unlike St. Patrick, St. Joseph wrote nothing and said nothing that is recorded in the Gospels. If Patrick was the evangelizer of the Irish peoples by his preaching and teaching, Joseph, equipped by the Spirit, pre-evangelized by doing the things that he had to do to look after Jesus, to stand by and support his wife and her child. His witness was one of deed, not word. Through the choices he made, and following through on those choices, he fulfilled the promises made to the patriarchs and the prophets, that is to say, in his custody of Jesus and in his nurturing of Jesus, he “filled full” the incarnational aspirations of the Old Testament.


From all we know about St. Joseph we can say that he was a true and devout Torah-observant Jew, the husband of Mary and a skilled worker. Perhaps we may add one further note. If Jesus, humanly speaking (and in no way denying his divinity), turned out the way he did as an immensely generous, warm-hearted, gentle and forgiving man, what must Joseph’s parenting, his Torah-teaching, his modeling of masculinity have been like? Joseph must truly have been in St. Matthew’s words “a righteous man” (Mt 1:19). This means a man who not only knew the Torah but lived it.

In the liturgical calendar Patrick comes before Joseph, and yet historically it is Joseph in his care for the child Jesus who paves the way for Patrick and his commitment to Jesus Christ. Patrick comes across as a true lover of God-in-Christ, a missionary, willing to spend himself for the Gospel, and one who has real self-knowledge.

Once we get behind the legendary material that has obscured these two Lenten saints, Patrick and Joseph, we may recognize in them strong witnessing companions for our own journey, and not just through Lent. The late Blessed Sacrament priest–scholar Father Eugene LaVerdiere wrote of Joseph and Mary: “In the eyes of God, the insignificant couple — as far as the world was concerned — were key players in the history of salvation. . . . Salvation takes place in the warp of human history, but only for those who are attuned to God’s ways.” Perhaps we may say something similar of Patrick and Joseph.

DEACON CUMMINGS is Regents’ Professor of Theology and Academic Dean at Mount Angel Seminary.