St. Patrick didn’t drive errors out of journalism

Celtic cross

In his thought-provoking essay “Reclaiming St. Patrick’s Day,” Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen talks about how Christians could emphasize the day by highlighting issues related to the great saint (e.g. fighting human trafficking, celebrating multi-ethnic communities and incarnational ministry). Here’s how it begins:

If you’ve ever read an article about St. Patrick’s Day, it probably talked about how little the celebration has to do with the actual Patrick.

I, for one, have grown tired of the annual rehashing of how he didn’t really drive the snakes from Ireland and didn’t really use the shamrock to explain the Trinity.

You know who hasn’t gotten tired of that? The Christian Science Monitor. I’ve long been on record opposing the error-ridden “mythbusting” articles that run around Christian holy days, but even for that genre, this one (“St. Patrick’s Day: Did Patrick become Christian for the tax breaks?“) was a piece of work:

Patrick, in fact, isn’t even recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as an official saint. Perhaps more jarring, he likely became a Christian for the tax breaks.

Um, how does one even respond to this? Let’s just say that these things would be jarring if they were in any way true. Not only is St. Patrick recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as an “official” saint, he’s recognized in Eastern Orthodoxy as well! And, well, he didn’t become a Christian for the tax breaks. He wrote about his life in Declaration. Here are the first two paragraphs:

1. I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

2. And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

The odd thing is that the Monitor story actually explains a bit about these letters and never substantiates its claim about Patrick joining the church for a tax break with anything other than a link to the History Channel. The relevant bit is this:

Although his father was a Christian deacon, it has been suggested that he probably took on the role because of tax incentives and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family.

So Patrick’s grandfather was a priest but Patrick’s father only became a Christian for the tax breaks? I mean, as much as I love to believe the unsubstantiated, passive-voice claim from a network that runs more shows on ghosts than on, you know, history, I’m going to need a bit more convincing. Either way, though, the History Channel’s claim isn’t that Patrick became a Christian for tax purposes.

It turns out that the Monitor has appended a correction. And rewritten the offending paragraph. Now we have:

While recognized a saint, Patrick was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, as he died before the official sainthood process began. And in an odd path to the church, his father possibly became a church deacon for the tax breaks — though the jury is out on Patrick’s motivations.

The jury is still out on Patrick’s motivations for becoming Christian? What does that even mean? I think the Occam’s Razor answer as to why Patrick’s dad came to the church — considering that he was raised in the church by a father who was a priest — has got to be “tax breaks,” don’t you? But apart from that silliness, the last phrase is just not true. There is no jury and it is not deliberating Patrick’s motivations.

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  • FrH

    They’re still wrong about the canonization. Granted that he is a saint because of popular piety and devotion that was countenanced by the Church at the time–that was the canonization process back then. There is no distinction in the Church’s practice or belief between saints canonized that way and saints canonized through the more structured processes now in place.

  • Martha

    “Perhaps more jarring, he likely became a Christian for the tax breaks.”

    Suuuure… because herding swine on a cold hillside in Ulster was *such* a lucrative career choice.

    But you know, it’s not impossible to find out what he allegedly said himself:

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.ii.html

    “I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive.

    …But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”

    Romano-British family. Already a Christian, though not very sincere; came to a more fervent belief in his sojourn as a slave in Ireland. Nothing about tax breaks there, I’m sorry.

  • Martha

    Can the History Channel or the Christian Science Monitor enlighten me as to who was taxing Ireland, seeing as how we were never a part of the Roman Empire?

    I mean, if Patrick’s father was supposed to officially become a Christian for the tax breaks, and Patrick had similarly murky reasons, why the heck did he end up in what was, at the time, the back end of beyond instead of sticking around in civilised France?

  • Michael Pettinger

    I don’t know about people who teach in other periods, but the History Channel is the bane of this medievalist’s existence. (Among other gems that I have had to unteach is the notion that the Vikings were “just businessmen” — a blood-curdling understanding of the word “business.) Is the passive-voice here supposed to represent current academic discussion? Because the problem is that journalists who don’t know much about the periods they’re discussing seem to latch on to the most provocative interpretation they encounter rather than the most plausible one.

  • Michael Pettinger

    Martha,

    Patrick was not born in Ireland. He was probably born in the Romanized part of Britain. His first “visit” to Ireland was as the enslaved captive of pirates (hence the connection to human-trafficking).

    Passing on clerical office from father to son was pretty common in Gall and Britain at the time — but as Molly points out, this doesn’t have much to do with his being Christian (and does nothing to explain his decision to return to Ireland as a missionary.)

  • Chris Bolinger

    [The History Channel] runs more shows on ghosts than on, you know, history…

    LOL

  • Rebecca

    “While recognized a saint, Patrick was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, as he died before the official sainthood process began.”

    This sentence really tripped me up. I thought they were saying that a person proposed for sainthood had to be nominated before they died (of course, untrue). But what they were really saying is that St. Patrick predates the formal canonization process. Well actually if they said it that way there’d be one less error in the article

    Ugh what a piece of work.

  • Jerry

    and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family.

    You missed that howler, Mollie, but given the number of them in the story, it’s perfectly understandable. What under the heavens does his family’s beliefs have to do with his except in old Testament Biblical exegesis.

  • James Davis

    As a Protestant, I admire Sts. Patrick and Columba for evangelizing fierce barbaric tribes without firing a shot — apparently through devotion, determination, sacrifice and steady leadership.

  • bt

    Even in recent history, the requirements for canonization of saints has changed from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI, but saints canonized through either process are all saints!

    This excerpts provide a good reason why I like reading about the lives of saints in their biographies rather than from newspaper columnists who have little grasp of the Catholic faith.

  • bob

    Not only did Patrick miss the modern method of being recognized as a saint, at the time he lived the Pope didn’t dress in lace and red shoes or speak Italian! More astonishing facts as yet unreported by the “History” channel. Another reason not to buy cable TV. Or to listen to very much said about Christian history by journalists. Isn’t it about time for Time to have the “What Really Happened at Easter?” front cover?

  • Julia

    “Canonizing” just means being officially recognized on the list of approved saints. Many names were traditionally listed before there was a formal process. Some names have been removed, such as Christopher – who is now believed to have been a pious fiction. Ideally, all of us will be saints – whether on an official church list or not.

    There seems to be an erroneous belief that “canonizing” means that the Pope has put the person in heaven. No, it means that from the evidence the person is most likely in heaven, and is a worthy role model and exemplar of Christian living. “Canonizing” makes it OK to name a church after that person and to include the person in the prayers of the church.

    More and more media content seems to be aimed at eliciting page views at websites. Previously, it was selling copies of the newspaper. That’s what’s behind all this stirring the pot where otherwise who would care about the subject.

    I really dislike the History Channel’s habit of denoting experts who expound on their religious/historical/conspiracy programs as “researchers”. Heck, I’m a researcher – everybody who uses Google and Bing is a “researcher”. We don’t need no stinking badges.

  • Martha

    Michael, I’m perfectly aware Patrick was a foreigner :-)

    That’s the point – tax break reasons for converting to Christianity are pretty much no good if you’re heading off to somewhere they don’t pay taxes to the authorities granting you the tax breaks.

    It may have been a good reason if he had stayed in Britain or in Gaul, where there would have been exemptions for the clergy from the civic authorities, but going off to wild Ireland amongst the savages was no advantage at all.

  • http://timhollingworth.blogspot.com Tim H.

    I gave up on The History Channel when they changed their name to The Histories Mysteries Channel. Recently they have become The UFO and Bigfoot Channel.

    -Tim-

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The media ought to look more into the angle that the great St. Patrick was the son of a deacon. With married, ordained deacons now becoming common in the Catholic Church there are a number of men in Catholic seminaries or already ordained priests who are sons of deacons. History is slowly changing unnoticed under the very feet of those who are supposed to be noticing and reporting on current happenings.

  • Julia

    hmmm. Very interesting observation, Deacon. My youngest son’s best friend is the son of a deacon. That is going to become more common. Hadn’t thought of that.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Not only is St. Patrick recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as an “official” saint, he’s recognized in Eastern Orthodoxy as well!

    You say that like you’re surprised.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Not surprise — just making the point that the original Monitor story was even more wrong on the point.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Clearly, someone’s pants are on fire.

  • str

    “and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family.”

    What a great line! And neither is there any evidence for Patrick coming from a not particular religious family. In fact, that his father was a priest and his grandfather a deacon may even point to them having been particular “religious” (if one must use that empty term) – surely we can’t be certain but if anything, it points rather in this direction than in the one the article claims.

  • str

    As for Saints and Canonisation/Beatification:

    In principle, Saints and Blessed are those that are in heaven with God.

    But the point here is the veneration of certain people deemed to be Saints. It is the veneration that gives them the epithet “Saint” or “Blessed”.

    The current process of Canonisation/Beatification is merely a formal way of determining whether one is to be venerated and it actually it the process for the particular church of Rome and no more. The Roman church venerated its Saints (two catalogues present in the prayers of the Roman Rite of Mass) just like any other church venerated their Saints because it had some connection to them. It was only in the 11th century that there was a request from outside of Rome (in this first case, the church of Augsburg) to the Roman church about the veneration of their deceased bishop.

    Because of the reputation of the Roman Church (and later because of their scrupulous process), the Roman canon of Saints is followed throughout the Catholic Church.

  • Jon in the Nati

    “and there is no evidence that Patrick came from a particularly religious family.”

    Well, it just seems a strange claim to make, given that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. Most families like that that I know would be considered “particularly religious.” But then, who knows?

  • Savage

    While recognized a saint, Patrick was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, as he died before the official sainthood process began.

    I wasn’t aware one could be canonised before death. Well, perhaps Our Lord. And Our Lady. Oh, and Saint Enoch, and Saint Elijah.. hey!!!

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    “Some names have been removed, such as Christopher – who is now believed to have been a pious fiction.”

    No, this is incorrect. St. Christopher is still listed in the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic Church’s official list of saints (and even this list is admittedly incomplete).

    What you are referring to his the removal of St. Christopher’s feast day from the general calendar of the saints commemorated liturgically in the Roman rite. Only a couple of hundred of the more than 10,000 saints officially recognized by the Church make this calendar. There just aren’t that many days in the year!

    What happened was that in 1969, as part of the general revising of the Roman Missal by Pope Paul VI, the feasts of a number of saints of the early centuries whose stories might be more legendary than real were dropped from this limited calendar in favor of some canonized more recently.

    But Christopher is nonetheless still a saint, and he is still commemorated liturgically in places traditionally devoted to him or churches named for him. The Church has certainly never declared that he is not a saint, that is, there is probably a recognized historical core in the fact of his martyrdom. There are a few saints who were completely eliminated because they were complete fictions or there was no real historical record of devotion to them.

  • Julia

    There is a Catholic society dedicated to studying and revising the real lives of saints according to the latest philological and historical tools – called the Bollandists. Anybody who is interested in writing a comprehensive article on saint-making, etc. should look into their 400 centuries of scholarly work. Be sure to read the “short history” available at that site. I don’t know what they have written about Christopher – didn’t have the time to figure out how to access that information.

    Here’s their website:
    http://www.kbr.be/~socboll/

    And here’s the Hagiography Society in the US at the University of Wisconsin which coordinates and promotes non-church academic studies of saints’ stories – as history and literature.

    http://mendota.english.wisc.edu/~hagio/

  • Dino

    Truths and myths.
    If the media giants only want to recognize saints declared through formal canonizations, they would be eliminating Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, et al. The church calendar would certainly be a lot shorter.
    I don’t think St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. There is no record of him owning a car. Sorry, my Irish sense of humor just has to slip out sometimes.