With recent releases of special-affects-loaded blockbusters like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, and the arrival of St Patrick’s Day, I am again reminded: Every time I hear the story of the bishop who transformed the nation of Ireland, Mel Gibson comes to mind. Whatever one thinks of the Australian actor/director, he’s demonstrated himself a skilled movie hand — The Passion of the Christ, controversial though it be, is a cinematic masterpiece. His Apocolypto was admittedly flawed, but even so still impressive. And Braveheart — need I say more?
Well, the exploits of Patrick of Ireland are a tale clamoring for a big-budget, skillfully crafted, Hollywood rendering. Gibson, a professing Catholic with an eye for cinematic storytelling, with lots of money to invest in personal projects, would be perfect at the helm of such an enterprise.
The fabled Irish figure known as St. Patrick was, in fact, not a native of the Emerald Isle at all. Actually, in the closing years of the fourth century and the Roman empire, he was born Magnus Sucatus Patricius in what was Roman Britain (possibly Wales). It was a region being quickly abandoned by its former Roman conquerors, increasingly threatened by feral Picts and Scots to the north and foreign marauders from overseas. One of these, a band of Irish raiders, attacked and sacked the seaside villa of the 16-year-old Patricius’ aristocratic, Christian family. The young man and a group of his father’s servants were captured and hauled off to Ireland, where the teenager became slave to the Druid chieftain-king Miliuce of Slemich. Soon enough, he found himself dispatched to the bleak, northeastern Slemish mountain; alone, everything he’d taken for granted back in his privileged home life now gone, he was assigned the care of the king’s sheep and swine.
For six grueling years the captive swineherd labored on that rain-swept pasture — and began to pray. The Christian faith which Patricius had learned — and largely rejected — as a youth became a profound source of comfort and peace for him in his destitution. “I would pray 100 times a day, and almost as many times at night,” he would one day write. “It was the fervent Spirit praying within me.”
Asleep one night on those dreary heights, Patricius heard a voice in a dream instructing him to strike out for the coast where he would find a ship back to Britain. Awakening, he slogged 200 miles to discover, indeed, a ready vessel, a way of escape. Returning home, but no longer the self-absorbed young man who had been snatched from his family years before, Patricius entered a period of his life of which paltry details are known.
What we do know, however, is that the fugitive slave eventually had another life-shaping dream: This time, a figure from the land of his former, grim servitude materialized before him, bearing letters from the Irish people, and another nocturnal voice echoed: “Come, and walk among us once more.” Patricius understood the charge and knew he must assent.
Family, friends, even some church leaders were appalled. Return to the barbaric Irish? Human sacrifice was a staple among those demon-haunted pagans! He was their runaway slave shepherd! What monstrous abuses might he suffer at their hands? Others insisted the beasts across the Irish sea were not deserving of the Christian gospel.
Patricius’ unruffled response? “I am prepared to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved — whatever may come my way.” He sold his title of nobility to raise funds for the mission, even refusing financial support offered by others, was ordained a priest, then a bishop, and, around the year 432 set sail for the land that had once been for him a prison of torment and despair.
Thirty years of fruitful ministry followed: Converts made, churches and centers of learning planted, social reforms implemented. It was a fruitful and perilous ministry — on more than one occasion, Patricius really did face those “murder, betrayal and enslavement” threats to which he defiantly alluded. There were rejections from the Irish people, spiritual showdowns with Druid magicians, even opposition from petty church officials. Yet, near the end of his life, the evangelist to Hibernia could exult, “Those who never had a knowledge of God but worshiped idols and things impure, have now become a people of the Lord, sons of God.”
Patricius’ saga embraces loads of the elements that make for big-screen powerhouses today. Obviously, there is adventure: eruptive and menacing action, a kidnapping, sea journeys, far-off lands, even pirates (maybe Johnny Depp could take a turn as an Irish brigand — we know he can do accents, and the pirate thing must be second nature to him by now). Also featured: family strife, emotional conflict, intrigue, otherworldly themes, and inspiration.
Clearly, no lack of exotic, even fanciful, legends have gathered around the chronicle of Patrick of Ireland; but even setting aside those more dubious accounts, and confining ourselves only to what we know pretty confidently about him, the illuminating, ennobling experience of the man popularly called “St. Patrick” provides us with a tale of startling exhilaration. It’s an epic venture, the commemoration of which has been obscenely reduced to a day to giggle about leprechauns, eat corned beef, and drink green beer. Where is the top-shelf, thoughtful box-office telling this spiritual giant’s life demands?
Mel Gibson, Ridley Scott, some innovative Hollywood big-shot – call your office!