St. Patrick and the Unmentionable Sin

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“I am looked down upon by many”


So says St. Patrick early in his autobiographical and spiritual testament Confessio.

In English we are tempted to translate the title as “Confession,” and that’s adequate, but a better translation may be “Witness.”

As for the statement above, in the Latin text it comes in the middle of the first sentence. The actual words – contemptibilisimus apud plurimos – mean literally “most contemptible by very many.”

Later in the story, Patrick makes it clear that it’s not just among the wild pagan Irish that he feels slighted. Much worse, he feels an object of contempt by his brother clerics in his native Britain.

Years before, Patrick had told a friend about some sin he committed when he was a teen-ager, during a time “before I overcame my weakness.”

What was it? Patrick doesn’t say. One modern dramatized presentation of his life suggests that it may have been some pagan sacrifice. Or maybe it was some less exotic sin. Whatever it was, it was serious, and embarrassing.

Yet Patrick says he confessed the sin to a priest before entering clerical life. From a Church point of view, that should have been the end of it. “Whose sins you forgive, are forgiven them,” Jesus says in John 20:23.

But the friend told others about it. And they held it over his head.  Long after Patrick had begun toiling in the dangerous and difficult mission territory of Ireland, he tells us, some Church leaders “came and put my sins against my hard work as a bishop.” Patrick was devastated. He felt as though he “was about to fall, both here and in eternity.”

Instead, that night he had a vision in which he saw “some writing before my dishonored face” – apparently a written accusation against him – interrupted by an answer from God saying that God saw “with displeasure” the accusation against “the one who was chosen.”

“He who touches you … touches the apple of my eye,” God told Patrick in the vision.

The point is not that the accusation is factually untrue. The point is that it’s irrelevant. Patrick’s misdeed had long ago been obliterated by contrition, sacrament, and penance. His subsequent good deeds had brought the Gospel to thousands of people who had never heard it. Through it all he remained, as a teacher of mine long ago called him, “preternaturally humble.”

How did Patrick react to this betrayal and detraction?

Like his Master.

“I pray that God not hold this sin against them,” Patrick writes in Confessio.

From the standpoint of curiosity, it would be interesting to know what Patrick’s sin was. From a dramatic and spiritual point of view, though, it’s right that he doesn’t tell us. For at the time of his writing, it didn’t exist. It had long ago ceased to be.


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