When St. Patrick, the “Apostle to the Irish”, returned to that land where he had been held as a slave and had accepted God’s challenge to convert its people to the Christian faith, he knew that he needed converts with particular skills who could help in this work. He was most fortunate in acquiring as a disciple the young Benin, or Benignus.
Through the preaching of St. Patrick, Benignus’ whole family were converted and baptized into the Church. His father, Sesenen, was an Irish chieftain and it is thought that the family belonged to the bardic order, so Benignus would have been taught the art of singing, story-telling and the recitation of history. With these abilities and his gentle personality, Benignus became the favorite student of St. Patrick.
Benignus also had complete faith in the Triune God and in his master’s ability to call upon the Name of God for protection and for winning over the hearts of the Irish people from their Pagan beliefs. His trust was so great that when the God of St. Patrick was “tested” against the god of the druids, Benignus allowed himself to be bound inside a building that was then set on fire. The burning building which the druid priests prayed over was destroyed by the fire, but the prayers of St. Patrick that God would extinguish the flames of the building in which Benignus was held were answered. Who is so great a God as our God? Thou art the God that doest wonders and hast declared thy power among the peoples. [Ps. 77:13a, 14]
Benignus’ abilities as a singer contributed greatly to the work of evangelizing the Irish people. His beautiful singing of the Psalms earned him the nick-name “Patrick’s psalm-singer” and he helped to establish musical practices in the newly-founded churches as he traveled around the country with Bishop Patrick. O come, let us sing unto the Lord. [Ps.95:1a].
As has been true of many Christian bishops (such as our patron, St. Gregory) in many times and places, St. Patrick had to assume a role in the organization of civil society. Benignus’ skills were useful here as well. He was appointed secretary for the “Commission of Nine”, given the responsibility for compiling Irish laws – the Brehon Laws. These laws covered such things as property ownership, payment of fines, hereditary order, and compensation for crimes; the Church’s involvement in writing down this ancient code of law was to try to maintain congruity with Christian moral teachings. Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall keep it with my whole heart. [Ps. 119:34]
Eventually, Benignus became the assisting Bishop for the city of Armagh, St. Patrick’s see-city, and surrounding area. Here a school was founded for the training of local Irish men who would become clerics. St. Benignus, with his important intellectual, organizational, and musical skills, was made the head of this school. O teach me true understanding and knowledge; for I have believed thy commandments. [Ps. 119:66]
St. Benignus resigned his position in Armagh in 467 and may have died later that year or early the next. There are several divergent accounts of some of the events of St. Benignus’ life. Some versions say that he established monasteries in Kilbannon and in Cavan. The English chronicler, William of Malmesbury (11th century) says that toward the end of his life the saint traveled to England and established a monastery near Glastonbury. Whatever the actual facts of his death, it is certainly true that St. Benignus, the “Psalm-singer”, had devoted his life after conversion to Christianity to serving God and his Church faithfully. Holy Benignus, pray for us. I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. [Ps. 104:33]
[Sources: Irish Saints by Peg Coghlan; Saints of the British Isles by Andrew Bond and Nicolas Mabin; Wikipedia article.]