The Angry Letter
Patrick certainly loved people, and sometimes he had to stand up for them when they were treated unjustly. In the well-known Letter, which he wrote to Coroticus, a chieftain-king in southern Scotland who had taken some of Patrick’s newly confirmed Christians as captives, we learn how stern and strong Ireland’s saint could be when there were innocent people to be rescued and defended.
Patrick became deeply angry when Coroticus, who claimed to be a Christian, treated these Christians whom he had enslaved very badly. Patrick knew it was his duty to speak the uncomfortable truth in love and in indignation because a great injustice had been done. In his Letter he protested to Coroticus and his soldiers, and quotes many words from the scriptures to support his complaints.
The Letter was an open one. Patrick wanted it to be read out in public. It was actually addressed to be soldiers who had been responsible for such fierce cruelty, but Patrick asked them to read it in the presence of Coroticus, their commanding officer. The commander had to be made aware of his responsibility for what had happened. Innocent people had been wrongly attacked.
An earlier letter, which had been lost, had been sent privately to the soldiers in the hope that some agreement could be found so that the victims of the attack could be sent back to Ireland speedily and peacefully. That letter, however, had been received with jeers and loud mocking laughter. Patrick described this with the Latin word cachinnos which has a scoffing sound. We can hear the sarcastic ‘cackle’ of the soldiers when we read the word out loud. Patrick had tried to buy back the captives and that offer was treated as a bad joke.
A letter of any kind was something very special in those days when there no such things as a regular delivery of mail. This particular Letter from a bishop, written for all to hear expressed the hope that Coroticus would be ashamed of what he had done and would be ready to change his mind. Patrick saw himself as an ambassador for Christ. He said that he had a perfect right to send this message even if this ‘tyrant’ Coroticus was in Scotland and not in Ireland. Patrick was representing his King, the God who was made known in Christ. If Patrick preached the love of God, he also had to uphold the justice of God. A great injustice had clearly been done to people who were in no position to defend themselves.
It is a moving letter. It is addressed sometimes to the soldiers and sometimes to Coroticus himself. Patrick writes in a loving way about his dear Christians now suffering as slaves. Some of them had already been sold for a great price to unknown owners. Patrick thinks of their white confirmation robes and the sweet smell of the ointment used on foreheads when they were anointed at confirmation.
He writes in the Letter, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ He hopes God will hear this cry for help when it is read out too: ‘Lord, I am thoroughly despised. See, your sheep are torn to pieces around me and are carried off by the raiders, as ordered by the evil-hearted Coroticus.
Patrick certainly did not mince his words. He knew how greedy these raiders had been. As we read the Letter we can feel how very angry he was. His short sentences are sharp and pointed. He writes passionately since he had known at firsthand what it was like to be captured and carried away to a strange country.
He hoped that his word to Coroticus and the soldiers will bring some comfort to those who have been so greatly wronged. Patrick was very stern when he announced to the public and to anyone who might have contact with these guilty people: ‘You must not associate with them, or seek any favours from any of them. it is not right to eat and drink with them. no one ought to receive any gifts or alms from them. Such fraternising must not take place until they make amends to God and pay painful penalties, until they set free these servants of God and these baptised handmaids of Christ for whom he was crucified.’ This was the meaning of Patrick’s words of excommunication.