St. Patrick’s Parentage

Rev. William Fleming
St. Patrick’s Parentage

About the middle of the fourth century a noble decurion named Calphurnius espoused Conchessa, the niece of St. Martin of Tours.

Heaven blessed their union with several children, the youngest of whom was a boy, who received at his baptism the name of Succath, which in the Gaelic tongue signifies “valiant.”

Jocelin is responsible for the statement that the parents of the future Apostle of Ireland took, by mutual consent, the vow of celibacy after St. Patrick’s birth, and that Calphurnius, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Hilary, and St. Germanus, who were all married men, “closed his days in the priesthood” (chap, ii., p. 2). “There were thousands of priests and Bishops,” as Dr. Döllinger observes, “who had sons before their ordination” (“History of the Church,” vol. ii., p. 23, note).

There are others, however, like Father Bullen Morris, who are of opinion that St. Patrick’s declaration in the “Confession” that his father was “a deacon” is a mistake on the part of the copyist for “decurion,” and, as a proof of this contention, they point to the words made use of by the Saint in his Epistle to Coroticus, which is admittedly genuine:

“I am of noble blood, for my father was a decurion. I have bartered my nobility—for which I feel neither shame nor sorrow—for the sake of others.”

It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the assurance given in the “Confession” that his father was a humble deacon.

“It is inconceivable,” as Father Bullen Morris argues, “that the Saint, sprung from a noble family, should base his claim to nobility on the fact that his father, Calphurnius, was a deacon. On the other hand, the theory that Calphurnius was a Roman officer fits in with both statements of the Saint” (“St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland,” p. 285, Appendix).

The same author gives another reason for calling in question this part of the text of the “Confession” in the “Book of Armagh.”

A scribe made an addition to the genealogy of St. Patrick as recorded in the Book, writing on the margin “Son of Odisseus”; and these words are actually introduced into the text by Dr. Whitley Stokes, in his edition of the “Confession,” without either note or comment.

It is easy to imagine, therefore, that ancient Celtic writers, with their passion for genealogies, should tamper with the ancestors of St. Patrick.

Nicholson, a distinguished Irish scholar, was of opinion that the addition “a deacon” was mere guesswork on the part of the copyist, and wrote “incertus liber hic”—“the book is here unreliable” (“St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland,” Appendix, pp. 286–288).

Moreover, if the word “a deacon” in the “Book of Armagh” is the true reading, it must surely be a matter for surprise that St. Patrick, who sternly enforced the law of celibacy in Ireland as part of the discipline of the Catholic Church, should describe himself as the son of a deacon without either comment or explanation, and more especially when we remember that the Council of Elvira, a.d. 305, and the Council of Arles, a.d. 314, had enforced the laws of celibacy—“The severe discipline of the Councils of Elvira and Arles,” writes Alzog, “obtained the force of law and became general throughout the Western Church” (“Universal Church History,” vol. i., chap, iv., pp. 280, 281).

The practice of clerical celibacy, therefore, existed in the Western Church probably before Calphurnius was born, and certainly before he was old enough to get married.

Calphurnius was admittedly a decurion, or Roman officer. Now Pope Innocent I., in his Letter to Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse, in the year 405, in answer to a number of questions submitted to him by the Bishop, stated that there was an impediment to the ordination of men who had served in the army on account of the loose morality prevalent in the camp.

As the Pope was simply laying down the rules of discipline already existing in the Church, Calphurnius, being a Roman officer, could not have been ordained without the removal of the impediment. All this tends at least to prove that we should read “decurion” for “deacon” in the “Confession.”

According to the “Book of Sligo,” St. Patrick was born on Wednesday (373), baptized on Wednesday, and died on Wednesday, March 17th, a.d. 493.

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