St. Patrick’s Roman Mission

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter VIII. concluded

Those who are anxious, for obvious reasons, to deny the fact of St. Patrick’s mission from Rome, do so on two grounds: first, the absence of a distinct statement of this mission in one or two of the earliest lives of the saints; and his not having mentioned it himself in his genuine writings. Second, by underrating the value of those documents which do mention this Roman mission.

With regard to the first objection, it is obvious that a hymn which was written merely as a panegyric (the Hymn of St. Fiacc) was not the place for such details. But St. Fiacc does mention that Germanus was the saint’s instructor, and that “he read his canons,” i.e., studied theology under him.

St. Patrick’s Canons,[6] which even Usher admits to be genuine, contain the following passage. We give Usher’s own translation, as beyond all controversy for correctness:—

“Whenever any cause that is very difficult, and unknown unto all the judges of the Scottish nation, shall arise, it is rightly to be referred to the See of the Archbishop of the Irish (that is, of Patrick), and to the examination of the prelate thereof, But if there, by him and his wise men, a cause of this nature cannot easily be made up, we have decreed it shall be sent to the See Apostolic, that is to say, to the chair of the Apostle Peter, which hath the authority of the city of Rome.”

Usher’s translation of St. Patrick’s Canon is sufficiently plain, and evidently he found it inconveniently explicit, for he gives a “gloss” thereon, in which he apologizes for St. Patrick’s Roman predilections, by suggesting that the saint was influenced by a “special regard for the Church of Rome.”

No doubt this was true; it is the feeling of all good Catholics; but it requires something more than a “special regard” to inculcate such absolute submission; and we can scarcely think even Usher himself could have gravely supposed, that a canon written to bind the whole Irish Church, should have inculcated a practice of such importance, merely because St. Patrick had a regard for the Holy See.

This Canon was acted upon in the Synod of Magh-Lene, in 630, and St. Cummian attests the fact thus:—

“In accordance with the canonical decree, that if questions of grave moment arise, they shall be referred to the head of cities, we sent such as we knew were wise and humble men to Rome.”

But there is yet another authority for St. Patrick’s Roman mission.

There is an important tract by Macutenius, in the Book of Armagh.

The authenticity of the tract has not, and indeed could not, be questioned; but a leaf is missing: happily, however, the titles of the chapters are preserved, so there can be no doubt as to what they contained. In these headings we find the following:—

“5. De aetate ejus quando iens videre Sedem Apostolicam voluit discere sapientiam.”

“6. De inventione Sancti Germani in Galiis et ideo non exivit ultra.”

Dr. Todd, by joining these two separate titles, with more ingenuity than fairness, has made it appear that “St. Patrick desired to visit the Apostolic See, and there to learn wisdom, but that meeting with St. Germanus in Gaul he went no further.”[7]

Even could the headings of two separate chapters be thus joined together, the real meaning of et ideo non exivit ultra would be, that St. Patrick never again left Germanus,—a meaning too obviously inadmissible to require further comment.

But it is well known that the life of St. Patrick which bears the name of Probus, is founded almost verbally on the text of Macutenius, and this work supplies the missing chapters.

They clearly relate not only the Roman mission of the saint, but also the saint’s love of Rome, and his desire to obtain from thence “due authority” that he might “preach with confidence.”

Ancient Sword

Ancient Sword, from the Collection of the R.I.A., found T Hillswood, Co. Galway


[6] Canons.—This Canon is found in the Book of Armagh, and in that part of that Book which was copied from St. Patrick’s own manuscript. Even could it be proved that St. Patrick never wrote these Canons, the fact that they are in the Book of Armagh, which was compiled, according to O’Curry, before the year 727, and even at the latest before the year 807, is sufficient to prove the practice of the early Irish Church on this important subject.

[7] Further.—Life of St. Patrick, p. 315.