Studia adulescentiam
alunt. "Studies nourish youth." It was -- and is -- the motto
of my high school, Riverdale Collegiate, in Toronto. In 1958 I was a 14-year
old, grade nine student at RCI. I was beginning my study of Latin. I noticed how
lovingly my Latin teacher, Katherine Hoey, pronounced the words studia adulescentiam
alunt. I wondered how or why anyone would ever fall in love with Latin.
I soon found out. Language, we know, admits us to a world. The
world to which my study of Latin admitted me was the world of ancient Rome. One
feature of ancient Rome was the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. The Pax
Romana spread from Rome as far north as Germany, as far east as India, as
far south as Africa, as far west as Britain. The Pax Romana lasted
almost a thousand years.
Years later I learned that it was the Pax Romana
that had allowed the spread of the gospel. Without the stable social order of
the Roman peace, the gospel wouldn't have moved out of Palestine and the church
would have remained a tiny Jewish sect in the Middle East.
Years later still I learned that I very nearly didn't get to
study Latin; and for the same reason I very nearly didn't get to hear the
gospel. The reason? In the 5th century A.D. barbarian hordes had swept out of
northern Europe and trashed everything they could find in the civilized world.
Virtually all classical learning appeared to be lost, even as the gospel of
Jesus Christ appeared to be snuffed out.
 Where had the barbarians come
from? They had come from northern Europe, east of the Rhine and east of the
Danube. They had lived there for centuries in their illiterate, wild-eyed
ferocity. Having observed their neighbours living in Roman outposts, however,
they had seen that the settled existence of agriculture was safer, easier, and
more productive than hunting with its ceaseless nomadic wanderings and
relentless dangers. Agriculturalists now, their productivity swelled. As their
foodstuffs multiplied, so did their numbers. Soon the barbarians wanted more
On 31st December, 406, the Rhine river froze solid. The
barbarians crossed the ice-bridge and poured down into civilized lands. The
Roman army couldn't stem the rush.
Wasn't the Roman army supposed to be able to stop anything?
But the Roman empire had grown faster than the Roman army. As the empire grew,
the empire required a bigger army than Rome's tax-revenues could sustain. For
years Rome had been trying to maintain the Pax Romana with an army too
small for the job. In addition, since many Romans didn't want to serve in the
army, the army had been filled up with semi-barbarian mercenaries who didn't
appreciate Rome's achievement and had no loyalty to it.
Nine hundred years earlier (390 B.C.) barbarians (Celts)
living in what is now France had descended upon Rome and wasted the city.
Climbing up out its ruins, Rome had step-by-step built itself into the world's
sole superpower. For 900 years Rome had done everything it could to avoid
putting the city itself and its treasures at risk; any war Rome had to fight it
endeavoured to fight on borders as far from Rome as possible. Then in 406 A.D.
barbarians had crossed the Rhine in Germany and crossed the Danube in Romania.
In four years they were in Rome itself, devastating everything they could. At
the same time unprincipled Romans were themselves looting the city, aware that
social order had broken down and they couldn't be punished.
In the year that Rome was sacked (410 A.D.), the Roman
garrison had already been withdrawn from Britain, as the soldiers were needed
elsewhere in the empire. The barbarians who crossed the North Sea landed
unopposed on the eastern shores of Britain. Meanwhile Irish barbarians,
terrifying in their pitiless ferocity, landed on the western shores of Britain
(as they had done for centuries) and carried off as many Britons as they felt
like enslaving. The Irish barbarians (Celts) most often felt like carrying off
British children, since children were the easiest to transport and the easiest
to train as slaves.
 What was lost in the barbarian
invasions? Countless lives were lost. Lost as well was the literature of
antiquity, the content of classical civilization. Latin literature had been
developing for 1200 years. Now it appeared to be lost forever. (Much Greek
drama, we should note, has been lost forever.) Lost as well was the living
civilization that the literature nourished. Had every last book actually been
trashed we should have lost eversomuch that universities treasure today: the
philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the poetry of Homer and Virgil, the history
of Herodotus and Tacitus, the oratory of Demosthenes and Cicero.
 Seven hundred years before the
barbarians crossed the Rhine in 406 they had crossed it for the first time and
then had settled wherever they could. By 350 B.C. this particular wave of
barbarians had spread throughout Ireland. They were the people we now call the
Irish. They were an illiterate, semi-nomadic, war-waging people who measured
wealth in terms of the animals they owned as well as the slaves.
When the Irish waged war (this they did frequently) they
stripped themselves naked, equipped themselves with sword, shield, sandals and
neck jewellery, and then howled piercingly as if they were deranged. Roman
soldiers were jarred when confronted with men whose seeming insanity (including
the most grotesque facial distortions) left them feeling no pain and sensing no
One day such an Irish raiding party landed in Britain and
carried off as a slave a 16-year old whose name was Patrick. Immediately Patrick
was turned into a shepherd-slave. Underfed, underclothed, underhoused, he never
forgot the cold and hunger and loneliness of his sojourn in a strange land. For
the rest of his life his heart ached whenever he was among people who were
deprived in any respect.
Patrick had been uprooted from his home in a civilized town of
Roman Britain. Now he was living in wildest Ireland. He began to pray. To whom?
To the One whose gospel he had learned from Christians in Roman Britain. Patrick
endured six years of isolation, six years of faithful devotion to the One who
himself had had nowhere to lay his head. Then in 407 he knew himself addressed
as surely as Abraham and Moses and Jeremiah had known themselves addressed:
"Your hungers are rewarded; you are going home; your ship is ready."
Ship? He was tending sheep, 200 miles from the seacoast! Nevertheless, because,
as he was to say later, "The Spirit in me was ardent", he walked 200
miles across terrain he had never seen before. He reached the southeast coast of
Ireland and there he saw -- a ship! His one comment on the entire undertaking
was, "I came in God's strength...and had nothing to fear."
The ship was leaving for the continent. He persuaded the
captain to add him to the crew. Eventually he found his way back to Britain, was
reunited with his family, and planned to stay home. But then he was addressed
again: "We beg you to come and walk among us once more....He who gave his
life for you; he it is who speaks within you." As surely as Patrick knew
who was calling him he knew what his vocation was. Immediately he left Britain
for France and pursued a theological education in preparation for ordination. No
sooner was he a priest than the French bishops made him a bishop too and sent
him with their blessing back to Ireland. Whereupon Patrick became the first
missionary to barbarians beyond the protection of Roman law. (The apostle Paul
had been a missionary to "both Greeks and barbarians", but Paul had
never moved beyond the protection of Roman law.) Patrick's missionary step into
Ireland was as daring as the first astronaut's step into outer space.
Patrick immediately schooled his first converts and appointed
the more able ones among them as bishops throughout Ireland. Ireland had no
cities at this time, its people living in scattered settlements where cattle and
sheep were raised. Since the Irish kings (so-called) at this time were little
more than rustlers, Patrick always placed the bishops adjacent to the kings,
hoping to subdue the latter's cruelty.
When it came to cruelty Patrick was convinced there was
nothing more cruel than slavery, especially in the manner it tormented women.
For the rest of his life he would campaign against the slave-trade. And within a
few years after his death, the Irish had forsworn it.
Patrick consistently announced and embodied the gospel for 40
years. For decades he lived and worked among fierce people, brave people,
warrior-people. He persuaded them that the gospel is real; so very real, in
fact, that they didn't have to slay rivals to prove their bravery; they didn't
have to think that peace-making was a sign of weakness; didn't have to
compensate for their fear of death by visiting violence on others -- for now
their fear of death evaporated as they came to know that Christ's resurrection
had defused death itself. Most tellingly, perhaps, Patrick's gospel-influence
persuaded the Irish to give up the practice of human sacrifices. For centuries
the Irish had sacrificed prisoners-of-war to the war-gods and newborn babies to
the harvest-gods. Under Patrick's ministry the Irish came to see that the
sacrifice had been made on behalf of the whole world, friend and foe alike. No
longer did the Irish use the skull-tops of slain enemies as drinking bowls, and
no longer did the Irish proudly display severed heads.
Under Patrick's ministry the chaos in Ireland gradually gave
way to peace, while everywhere else peace was giving way to chaos. In 476,
fifteen years after Patrick's death, the last Roman emperor died. Now the
barbarians had the field to themselves everywhere -- except Ireland.
Needless to say, while the gospel was Patrick's most important
gift to the wild Irish, learning-in-general was important too. The gospel was
recorded in the written gospels; these had to be read; and therefore
people had to be able to read. Once they learned to read they read everything
available. But what was available, in view of the barbarian destruction of
books? It so happened that a few books from antiquity had been hidden or
otherwise preserved accidentally. The Irish knew how important these books were.
They became painstaking copyists, copying out by hand book after book from
antiquity, regardless of whether the book to be copied was Christian or
Patrick's missionary work had catalyzed Irish scholarship.
Through Patrick the Irish renounced illiteracy and became lovers of learning,
regarding learning of any kind (like the Jewish people before them) as a sacred
Before we leave Patrick we should note one thing more: Ireland
is the only land into which Christianity has been introduced unaccompanied by
bloodshed. (We need only think of Canada where the French and the English
introduced the Christian faith amidst the shedding of each other's blood, not to
mention the blood of the aboriginals.) Because the Christian faith was brought
to Ireland without bloodshed, there are no Christian martyrs in Ireland; at
least there is none for 1100 years after Patrick, none until the reign of
Elizabeth I in England. Queen Elizabeth I (of whom John Wesley said, "She
was as Christian as Mahomet and as kind as Nero") broke the tradition as
she made martyrs of many Irish folk.
 It was the Irish monks
specifically who kept alive both Christian learning and classical learning when
the barbarians had rendered both virtually extinct everywhere else. Since
Ireland had no cities, the monastic centres became centres of learning, with
towns growing up around them to serve the students who were now coming from all
over Ireland, England and continental Europe.
The students who came to these Irish monastic universities
were commoners as well as nobles; they were welcome as long as they were serious
about studying even if they weren't preparing for vocations in the church; and
while they read only scripture and the church-fathers at first, soon they were
reading all of the ancient Greek and Latin works that others were copying
diligently. It was this Irish monastic learning that spread out from Ireland and
subsequently generated what we know today as Western culture.
Irish learning was important in yet another respect. The Irish
were the first people with classical educations who weren't ashamed of
their vernacular tongue. Because the educated Irish were not ashamed of their
vernacular language but continued to speak it, they learned to write it -- with
the result that the Irish were the first non-ancient people to develop their own
 In 521, sixty years after the
death of Patrick, another never-to-be-forgotten Irishman was born: Columba.
Columba was educated in Ireland, became a monk, visited several monasteries in
France, and then returned to Ireland where he established 41 monasteries before
he was fifty years old. In 564, 100 years after the death of Patrick, Columba
sailed with twelve companions to Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland.
Now Irish learning was being exported by an Irishman, just as Irish learning was
being imported into European centres by the continental students who had studied
in Ireland and then returned home. Columba, a man with an extraordinarily strong
personality (a modern French historian has spoken of him as "un homme de
fer" -- an ironman), created a literate Christian society among the Scots
and Picts (both barbarians, the Picts being barbarians who painted pictures
on their naked bodies whenever they went on the warpath).
Soon Irish monks were following the example of Columba.
Leaving Ireland behind, they fanned out across Europe, announcing the gospel
wherever they went and establishing centres of learning in Auxerre, Liege,
Wurzburg, Regensburg, Vienna, Salzburg, plus so many others. It was the Irish
who kept alive both the gospel and classical learning, the mainstays of Western
civilization, in the face of barbarian efforts at extinguishing gospel and
learning. At one time virtually every professor in Europe was either Irish or a
national trained by the Irish. Never had the Irish had the influence they had at
this point in their history; never would they have it again.
 For in the 11th century the
Vikings invaded Ireland but were driven out.
In the 12th century the Normans invaded Ireland and weren't
driven out. Still, they recognized the superiority of Irish culture and joined
themselves to it.
In the 16th century Elizabeth I planted English and Scottish
colonies in Ireland, and subjugated the Irish. Before long there were Irish
In the 17th century the English civil war broke out, moved
over to Ireland, and left thousands of Irish slain.
In the 18th century the anti-Roman Catholic penal laws crushed
the Irish. It was illegal for a Roman Catholic Irishman, for instance, to own a
horse worth more than five pounds. Anyone who did was hanged.
In the 19th century famine killed one million Irish folk.
Throughout the famine, however, food was harvested on Irish farms and exported
in huge quantities to England. The English nobility owned the farms and exported
the food. Irish people worked the farms but were denied access to the crops;
they were made to starve when their own little potato-patches became
In the early 20th century Irish people emigrated in huge
numbers, fleeing the island for any place that held out a better life.
In the latter half of the 20th century -- who cares to comment
on the tragedy of the "troubles" that began in 1969 and continue to
 The fact remains, however, that
Ireland became the first European country to possess a written literature. More
importantly Ireland preserved classical learning, the foundation of Western
culture. Most importantly, Ireland preserved the gospel.
My high school Latin teacher loved to pronounce the words Studia
adulescentiam alunt -- "Studies nourish youth." When the
class had advanced to the point of learning Latin participles and
third-declension nouns and other grammatical exotica she would smile teasingly
at us and say Omnes amantem amant -- "All the
world loves a lover." She didn't say, but she could have said out of
Christian conviction, devout Roman Catholic that she was, what the apostle Paul
said in Ephesians 5:25 and what this sermon is ultimately about: Christus
ecclesiam dilexit -- "Christ loved the church."
Victor Shepherd March 2002