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Ego Patricius: a Review of “I Am Patrick”

UPDATE: Fathom Events has issued the following statement:

Given current circumstances and to ensure the health and safety of our attendees, ‘I Am Patrick’ has been postponed. New event dates and ticketing information will be communicated when they become available. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for understanding.

UPDATE 2: CBN Films has released the movie on DVD.

Is there a saint more Catholic than St. Patrick? Yet, as you probably know, the great Apostle of Ireland (and one of that nation’s patrons) wasn’t Irish at all but a Roman Briton, son of a decurion, the mayor/tax collector of the town (possibly in Cumbria) where Patrick lived as a boy. His father was also a Catholic deacon.

But history – not least the parading passion of Irish immigrants and their ancestors in the United States – has arguably made him, after Paul and the Gospel writers, among the most popular saints of all and for all: many Catholics but also some Protestants, Jews, and – for all I know – Muslims and atheists will put on something green tomorrow and try speaking with an Irish accent.

I won’t because I’ve always found St. Paddy’s just about the worst day of the year in New York City – a too-often tasteless, drunken embarrassment. But that’s a subject for another column, one I hope never to write.

But, as Fr. George W. Rutler did write a few years ago, were Patrick to see New York’s parade:

[He] would bond more instinctively with the beheaded and crucified martyrs in the Middle East and Nigeria (whose official patron is Patrick) now spilling their blood for Christ, than with some revelers on Fifth Avenue who pantomime his name while spilling beer. There is a difference between martyrs and leprechauns.

Meanwhile, there’s a new movie coming called I Am Patrick, which is notable for being good drama and fascinating history – and for being distributed by the Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN, as you may know, is the brainchild of Baptist preacher, TV personality, and sometime presidential hopeful Pat Robertson.

But I Am Patrick, which (on the screener I watched) is introduced by Pat’s son, Gordon Robertson (executive producer of the film), is generally excellent, the sort of docudrama destined perhaps for a long life on the History Channel.

One of its virtues is evenhandedness. Still, it seemed to me an odd choice of subject for a CBN film, and I wondered if it would downplay Patrick’s Catholicism. It doesn’t. Not exactly. Any drama needs some poetic license.

And it may actually be a better film because Protestants were in charge. Devout Catholics might have succumbed to hagiography, and – although I don’t know what the film’s budget was – a Catholic production, especially one with lavish funding, might have been tempted to load up on special effects.

Or give us the mature Patrick, ably played here by John Rhys-Davies, the veteran Welsh actor (one of three who portray the saint at different periods in his life), holding up his walking stick like Charlton Heston’s Moses and casting a million slithering CGI snakes into the Irish Sea. Of course, fun as that might be to see, Patrick never did any such thing.

Gordon Robertson makes clear that we’ll have no such fantasies in the film; that its sources are limited to Patrick’s own writings: his Confessions and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. This is mostly true.

Writer-director Jarrod Anderson intersperses Patrick’s own autobiographical accounts – portrayed dramatically – with talking heads, all of them experts and, more-or-less, evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics: Dr. Tim Campbell, Director of the Saint Patrick Center in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland; Drs. Elva Johnston and Charles Doherty of University College Dublin; Dr. Elizabeth Dawson, Queen’s University Belfast; Very Rev. Henry Hull, Anglican Dean of Down Cathedral; Dr. Thomas O’Loughlin, University of Nottingham and author of Discovering Saint Patrick; and The Rev. Dr. Billy Swan, Catholic priest of St Aidan’s Cathedral in County Wexford. It’s a distinguished and lively group.

Dr. O’Loughlin says, “Of all the many slaves who were taken in the Roman Empire we know the name of only one who was taken and escaped: Patrick.”

And this is how the film begins – with the capture of the teenaged Patrick (Robert McCormack) by pirates who take him to Ireland and sell the boy to the pagans, who put him to work as a shepherd. Six years later, and now a truly committed Christian (thanks to his trials and his prayers and God’s grace), Patrick (now played by Seán T. Ó Meallaigh) escapes and returns home to his parents.

Against their objections, he travels to France to study for the priesthood. Eventually, he boldly returns to the land of his captivity to evangelize the Irish. As the film’s production notes put it:

[He] converted thousands to Christianity. He opposed slavers, Irish kings, and possibly druids but nothing compared to the hostility he faced from his fellow Christians. After a close friend exposed a dark secret of Patrick’s [not explained by Patrick nor speculated upon by the filmmakers], it is believed he was ordered to leave his mission and return to Britain. Patrick had to choose – obey God or obey man?

Much of the story is told via flashbacks: memories evoked as Patrick, nearing the end of his life, writes his Confessions, recounting his adventures and defending his honor and fidelity, which had been called into question by Church officials.

There may be in those production notes a little bit of reading Luther back into Patrick – to treat him not just as a man for all Christians but possibly as a proto-Protestant. It’s true that he ran afoul of the Catholic hierarchy at one point, but that’s true of a lot of men and women subsequently canonized by Rome.

But. . .we do see the young Patrick receive Holy Communion, hear his priest speaking Latin, and observe faithful Christians making the sign of the cross. How could it be otherwise? Protestantism was ten centuries in the future.

I Am Patrick is an excellent, enjoyable primer about the man whose feast we celebrate tomorrow.

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N.B.: The information below about the film is accurate, as of the publication of this review. However, due to the COVID-19 crisis, many theaters have established quotas on the number of tickets to be sold for screenings of all films and will enforce adequate spacing between seats – this in order to achieve “social distancing.” Many theaters have also instituted vigorous cleaning regimens to protect both employees and patrons. That said, you’ll be wise to call ahead to confirm both that the theater in your area is open and that tickets are available.

I Am Patrick, which does not, as I write, have an MPAA rating (but is probably a PG), is another Fathom Events project. Click here to find a theater in your area for screenings tomorrow and Wednesday.

UPDATE: CBN Films has released the movie on DVD.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is available on audio.