Soon after this blog covered the topic of Catholicism and slavery in depth in a 2010 post entitled The Catholic Church and Slavery: a New Look at Augustine and the 1839 In Supremo Controversy, one of my sons suggested that we also look at the Confessions of St. Patrick, and other earlier accounts of the life of St. Patrick. I thank my son for putting us on to the “St. Patrick and slavery” thread, and apologize for the three-year delay in finally completing this post!
Born a roughly a generation after St. Augustine of Hippo (b. 354), St. Patrick (ca. 387) also like Augustine confronted the victimization of Christian faithful by human traffickers / slave traders. I continue to be amazed when the witness of these important early Christian bishops against human trafficking and slavery is omitted from conversations on Catholicism and slavery. Therefore, I’m sharing the documents below to further inform the discussion!
In an 1852 publication entitled–
By JOHN FLETCHER,
–one finds the following account:
About the year 462, Niell Naoigiallach, or Neill of the Nine Hostages, ravaged the coast of Britain and Gaul. In this expedition a large number of captives were made. One youth, sixteen years of age, by the name of Cothraige, was sold to Milcho, and was employed by him in tending sheep, in a place called Dalradia — within the present county of Antrim. This Cothraige was St. Patrick, subsequently the apostle of Ireland.
St. Patrick, in his Confessions, states that many of his unfortunate countrymen were carried off and made captives, and dispersed among many nations.
The Romans had possession of Britain, and even had not slavery existed there previously, they would have introduced it ; but, the Britons needed not this lesson ; they had been conversant with it before : we shall see evidence of the long continuance of its practice.
About the year 450, a party of them, among whom were several that professed the Christian religion, made a piratical incursion upon the Irish coast, under the command of Corotic, or Caractacus, or Coroticus.
Lanigan compiles the following account of this incursion from the Eccles. History of Ireland, vol. i. c. iv.
“This prince, Coroticus, though apparently a Christian, was a tyrant, a pirate, and a persecutor. He landed, with a party of his armed followers, many of whom were Christians, at a season of solemn baptism, and set about plundering a district in which St. Patrick had just baptized and confirmed a great number of converts, and on the very day after the holy chrism was seen shining in the foreheads of the white-robed neophytes. Having murdered several persons, these marauders carried off a considerable number of people, whom they went about selling or giving up as slaves to the Scots and the apostate Picts. St. Patrick wrote a letter, which he sent by a holy priest whom he had instructed from his younger days, to those pirates, requesting of them to restore the baptized captives and some part of the booty. The priest and the other ecclesiastics that accompanied- him being received by them with scorn and mockery, and the letter not attended to, the saint found himself under the necessity of issuing a circular epistle or declaration against them and their chief Coroticus, in which, announcing himself a bishop and established in Ireland, he proclaims to all those who fear God, that said murderers and robbers are excommunicated and estranged from Christ, and that it is not lawful to show them civility, nor to eat or drink with them, nor to receive their offerings, until, sincerely repenting, they make atonement to God and liberate his servants and the handmaids of Christ. He begs of the faithful, into whose hands the epistle may come, to get it read before the people everywhere, and before Coroticus himself, and to communicate it to his soldiers, in the hope that they and their master may return to God, &c. Among other very affecting expostulations, he observes that the Roman and Gallic Christians are wont to send proper persons with great sums of money to the Franks and other pagans, for the purpose of redeeming Christian captives; while, on the contrary, that monster, Coroticus, made a trade of selling the members of Christ to nations ignorant of God.”
The following letter attributed to Patrick (alternatively titled, Patrick’s Letter to Coroticus or Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus), is a fundamental part of the lore surrounding St. Patrick, and picks up the next step of the story above. Scholars can determine the authenticity of this letter–
Letter To Coroticus
I, Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, resident in Ireland, declare myself to be a bishop. Most assuredly I believe that what I am I have received from God. And so I live among barbarians, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He is witness that this is so. Not that I wished my mouth to utter anything so hard and harsh; but I am forced by the zeal for God; and the truth of Christ has wrung it from me, out of love for my neighbors and sons for whom I gave up my country and parents and my life to the point of death. If I be worthy, I live for my God to teach the heathen, even though some may despise me.
With my own hand I have written and composed these words, to be given, delivered, and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus; I do not say, to my fellow citizens, or to fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but to fellow citizens of the demons, because of their evil works. Like our enemies, they live in death, allies of the Scots and the apostate Picts. Dripping with blood, they welter in the blood of innocent Christians, whom I have begotten into the number for God and confirmed in Christ!
The day after the newly baptized, anointed with chrism, in white garments (had been slain) — the fragrance was still on their foreheads when they were butchered and slaughtered with the sword by the above-mentioned people — I sent a letter with a holy presbyter whom I had taught from his childhood, clerics accompanying him, asking them to let us have some of the booty, and of the baptized they had made captives. They only jeered at them . Hence I do not know what to lament more: those who have been slain, or those whom they have taken captive, or those whom the devil has mightily ensnared. Together with him they will be slaves in Hell in an eternal punishment; for who commits sin is a slave and will be called a son of the devil.
Wherefore let every God-fearing man know that they are enemies of me and of Christ my God, for whom I am an ambassador. Parricide! fratricide! ravening wolves that “eat the people of the Lord as they eat bread!” As is said, “the wicked, O Lord, have destroyed Thy law,” which but recently He had excellently and kindly planted in Ireland, and which had established itself by the grace of God.
I make no false claim. I share in the work of those whom He called and predestinated to preach the Gospel amidst grave persecutions unto the end of the earth, even if the enemy shows his jealousy through the tyranny of Coroticus, a man who has no respect for God nor for His priests whom He chose, giving them the highest, divine, and sublime power, that whom “they should bind upon earth should be bound also in Heaven.”
Wherefore, then, I plead with you earnestly, ye holy and humble of heart, it is not permissible to court the favor of such people, nor to take food or drink with them, nor even to accept their alms, until they make reparation to God in hardships, through penance, with shedding of tears, and set free the baptized servants of God and handmaids of Christ, for whom He died and was crucified.
“The Most High disapproves the gifts of the wicked …He that offers sacrifice of the goods of the poor, is as one that sacrifices the son in the presence of his lather. The riches, it is written, which he has gathered unjustly, shall be vomited up from his belly; the angel of death drags him away, by the fury of dragons he shall be tormented, the viper’s tongue shall kill him, unquenchable fire devours him.” And so — “woe to those who fill themselves with what is not their own;” or, “What does it profit a man that he gains the whole world, and suffers the loss of his own soul?
It would be too tedious to discuss and set forth everything in detail, to gather from the whole Law testimonies against such greed. Avarice is a deadly sin. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.” “Thou shalt not kill.” A murderer cannot be with Christ. “Whosoever hates his brother is accounted a murderer.” Or, “he that loves not his brother abides in death.” How much more guilty is he that has stained his hands with blood of the sons of God whom He has of late purchased in the utmost part of the earth through the call of our littleness!
Did I come to Ireland without God, or according to the flesh? Who compelled me? I am bound by the Spirit not to see any of my kinsfolk. Is it of my own doing that I have holy mercy on the people who once took me captive and made away with the servants and maids of my father’s house? I was freeborn according to the flesh. I am the son of a decurion. But I sold my noble rank I am neither ashamed nor sorry for the good of others. Thus I am a servant in Christ to a foreign nation for the unspeakable glory of life everlasting which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And if my own people do not know me, a prophet has no honor in his own country .Perhaps we are not of the same fold and have not one and the same God as father, as is written: “He that is not with me, is against me, and he that gathers not with me, scatters.” It is not right that one destroys, another builds up. I seek not the things that are mine.
It is not my grace, but God who has given this solicitude into my heart, to be one of His hunters or fishers whom God once foretold would come in the last days.
I am hated. What shall I do, Lord? I am most despised. Look, Thy sheep around me are tom to pieces and driven away, and that by those robbers, by the orders of the hostile-minded Coroticus. Far from the love of God is a man who hands over Christians to the Picts and Scots. Ravening wolves have devoured the flock of the Lord, which in Ireland was indeed growing splendidly with the greatest care; and the sons and daughters of kings were monks and virgins of Christ — I cannot count their number. Wherefore, be not pleased with the wrong done to the just; even to hell it shall not please. Who of the saints would not shudder to be merry with such persons or to enjoy a meal with them? They have filled their houses with the spoils of dead Christians, they live on plunder. They do not know, the wretches, that what they offer their friends and sons as food is deadly poison, just as Eve did not understand that it was death she gave to her husband. So are all that do evil: they work death as their eternal punishment.
This is the custom of the Roman Christians of Gaul: they send holy and able men to the Franks and other heathen with so many thousand solidi to ransom baptized captives. You prefer to kill and sell them to a foreign nation that has no knowledge of God. You betray the members of Christ as it were into a brothel. What hope have you in God, or anyone who thinks as you do, or converses with you in words of flattery? God will judge. For Scripture says: “Not only them that do evil are worthy to be condemned, but they also that consent to them.”
I do not know why I should say or speak further about the departed ones of the sons of God, whom the sword has touched all too harshly. For Scripture says: “Weep with them that weep;” and again: “If one member be grieved, let all members grieve with it.” Hence the Church mourns and laments her sons and daughters whom the sword has not yet slain, but who were removed and carried off to faraway lands, where sin abounds openly, grossly, impudently. There people who were freeborn have, been sold, Christians made slaves, and that, too, in the service of the abominable, wicked, and apostate Picts!
Therefore I shall raise my voice in sadness and grief — O you fair and beloved brethren and sons whom I have begotten in Christ, countless of number, what can I do you for? I am not worthy to come to the help of God or men. The wickedness of the wicked hath prevailed over us. We have been made, as it were, strangers. Perhaps they do not believe that we have received one and the same baptism, or have one and the same God as Father. For them it is a disgrace that we are Irish. Have ye not, as is written, one God? Have ye, every one of you, forsaken his neighbor?
Therefore I grieve for you, I grieve, my dearly beloved. But again, I rejoice within myself. I have not labored for nothing, and my journeying abroad has not been in vain. And if this horrible, unspeakable crime did happen — thanks be to God, you have left the world and have gone to Paradise as baptized faithful. I see you: you have begun to journey where night shall be no more, nor mourning, nor death; but you shall leap like calves loosened from their bonds, and you shall tread down the wicked, and they shall be ashes under your feet.
You then, will reign with the apostles, and prophets, and martyrs. You will take possession of an eternal kingdom, as He Himself testifies, saying: “They shall come from the east and from the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” “Without are dogs, and sorcerers,… and murderers; and liars and perjurers have their portion in the pool of everlasting fire.” Not without reason does the Apostle say: “Where the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the sinner and ungodly transgressor of the law find himself?”
Where, then, will Coroticus with his criminals, rebels against Christ, where will they see themselves, they who distribute baptized women as prizes — for a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment? As a cloud or smoke that is dispersed by the wind, so shall the deceitful wicked perish at the presence of the Lord; but the just shall feast with great constancy with Christ, they shall judge nations, and rule over wicked kings for ever and ever. Amen.
I testify before God and His angels that it will be so as He indicated to my ignorance. It is not my words that I have set forth in Latin, but those of God and the apostles and prophets, who have never lied. “He that believes shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be condemned,” God hath spoken.
I ask earnestly that whoever is a willing servant of God be a carrier of this letter, so that on no account it be suppressed or hidden by anyone, but rather be read before all the people, and in the presence of Coroticus himself. May God inspire them sometime to recover their senses for God, repenting, however late, their heinous deeds — murderers of the brethren of the Lord! — and to set free the baptized women whom they took captive, in order that they may deserve to live to God, and be made whole, here and in eternity! Be peace to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As I noted in my earlier post on slavery and Catholicism, Bishop John England (d. 1842) of Charleston, South Carolina, wrestled with the topic of slavery, and especially with St. Patrick’s treatment of it. Please see the following book excerpt for a much more detailed account of Bishop England’s strained and rather convoluted treatment of the moral questions surrounding slavery. For more on Bishop England and slavery, please see my earlier post.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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