This week people all over the world celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. For many it is a time to pretend they are Irish, get drunk on green beer (or Guinness for the purists), take in a parade, and dress like a leprechaun. Ironically, though they celebrate with a passion, most people have long forgotten the actual story of St. Patrick. (For example, most people think he was Irish – but he wasn’t!)
St. Patrick has been one of my heroes for a long while, and what I want to do today is remember this story. St. Patrick was one of the most successful missionary pioneers in history and his story is full of lessons for us to remember and reminds us of the power of depending on God. His impact is still being felt today around the world. And I believe that the secret to his success wasn’t just about the work he did, but in his relationship with Jesus and the attitude of his heart.
Taken as a Slave
Early in the fifth century, a young man and his family walked along the shores of Roman Briton. As they walked together they noticed a fleet of fifty longboats weaving their way toward the shore. He was only 16-years-old, the son of a civil magistrate and tax collector, but even he had heard stories of the Irish raiders who would storm upon the shores capturing slaves to take with them “to the ends of the world”. As his eyes scanned the longboats, there is no doubt that he began imagining the worst.
The Roman legions had long since deserted Britain, so there was no military to protect them – and Patrick knew that his town was woefully unprepared for attack. The Irish warriors, wearing helmets and armed with spears, descended on the pebbled beach with a furious, terrible shout. The braying war horns struck terror into Patrick’s heart, and he started to run toward the uncertain safety of town.
With hardly an effort the warriors quickly demolished the village, and as Patrick darted among burning houses and screaming women, he was caught by one of the men. He struggled, but there was nothing he could do against the huge barbarian who dragged him aboard a boat bound for the east coast of Ireland.
Faith as a Slave
He was now a slave without any rights or freedoms, able to be sold to the highest bidder. And he was. Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose favourite decoration was his opponents’ heads which sat atop sharp pikes on the fence surrounding his land.
Patrick was to take care of his master’s pigs. There was no comfort in this position or care from his master. He lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger and thirst. Perhaps worst of all, was the loneliness. Not only was he a slave in a foreign land, but he was isolated from other human beings for months at a time.
His father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest, but Patrick was, by his own admission, only a nominal Christian. As his situation grew more desperate, the hunger pains worsened, the loneliness grew, and the days wore on, he finally turned to the God of his fathers for comfort.
“I would pray constantly during the daylight hours,” he later recalled. “The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.”
Patrick changed in remarkable ways, growing physically and spiritually in his time there, but as God’s love grew in his heart – so did his love of the Irish Celtic people. He learned their language and their culture – and he even came to love his slave masters. He began to identify with them and to hope and pray for their reconciliation with God.
After six years of slavery, Patrick heard a mysterious voice, a supernatural messenger, saying. “You do well to fast. Soon you will return to your homeland.” Patrick obeyed, and fasted and prayed even more fervently. Before long, the voice spoke again saying: “Come and see, your ship is waiting for you.” Patrick knew that this was his moment to escape and so he fled. He ran 200 miles to a southeastern harbor where he saw a ship, probably carrying Irish wolfhounds to the European continent. With some difficulty he convinced the traders to take him with them.
They sailed for three-days, Patrick recounting his story and sharing his deep faith with the men. They landed in Gaul (which is modern-day France). When they stepped from the boat they found only devastation. Goths or Vandals had so decimated the land that no food was to be found in the once fertile area. They walked for days trying to find something to feed themselves, but there was nothing.
“What have you to say for yourself, Christian?” the ship’s captain taunted. “You boast that your God is all powerful. You tell us of his great provision for you! Now we’re starving to death, and we may not survive to see another soul.” Patrick answered confidently. “Nothing is impossible to God. Turn to him and he will send us food for our journey.”
And at that very moment, a herd of pigs appeared and blocked their path. The men shouted, and Patrick instantly became “well regarded in their eyes,” — but to his sadness, his companions offered some of their new-found food in sacrifice to their pagan gods. Patrick, of course, did not partake in the sacrifice.
After a few years wandering the continent, he made his way back home to his family in England, and Patrick set his heart toward becoming a full time minister. He was trained to be a priest, immersed his mind in the scriptures, and grounded himself in theology. He served for some years as a faithful priest to the congregations of England.
It was during this time of faithful service, at age forty-eight, that Patrick had another vision. This one was like the apostle Paul’s at Troas, when a Macedonian man came to him in a dream and pleaded, “Help us!”
Patrick describes what happened this way: “I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland. His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And as I began to read these words, I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut, which is beside the western sea – and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”
When he awoke he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that God had called him to take Christianity to Ireland. Now, Ireland was a deeply pagan land. There is only one record of a Christian missionary to Ireland, a man named Palladus, who was unsuccessful in converting anyone and may have been martyred there.
Patrick appealed to the Bishops and to Pope Celestine to send him and a group of priests, seminary teachers and a few others, to Ireland. They affirmed his vision, ordained him as a bishop, and he returned to Ireland, this time as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The mission was hard, and Patrick showed himself to be wise, brave and faithful. After beginning his mission he wrote back, “I dwell among gentiles, in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshippers of idols, and of unclean things.” He loved the people, and spoke to them in their own language, but all the time he faced opposition from the druids (priests and magicians of the Celtic religion) who were very well educated and politically connected to the Irish kings. Much of Patrick’s time in Ireland was spent trying not to be killed by the druid priests.
The Celtic warriors were a difficult bunch as well. Before a battle they would strip bare and rush at their enemies wearing only their sandals, carrying a sword and a shield, while howling as possessed by demons! During the battle they would decapitate their enemies and perform human sacrifice to their various gods.
“Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity,” wrote Patrick, “but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.” There is a prayer of protection on the famous “Patrick’s Breastplate” which perfectly expresses the very prayer he may have repeated over and over:
“God… save me from… every fierce merciless force that may come upon my body and soul; against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of paganism, against false laws of heresy, against deceit of idolatry, against spells of women and smiths and druids.”
Patrick was as fully convinced as the Celts were that the power of the druids was real – but that it was a demonic power – and that the God he served was stronger. At one point Patrick had a powerful confrontation with the druids (though most scholars doubt that it was as magical as the stories recount) which was something like when Elijah contested against the prophets of baal on Mount Carmel, or Moses against the magicians of Egypt. It happened in a place called Tara where each side worked to outdo the wonders that the other was working. Legend says that Patrick “won” as God killed several of the druids and soldiers. The king was greatly enraged because of this, but Patrick said to the king, “If you do not believe now, you will die on the spot for the wrath of God descends on your head.”
In that moment “the king summoned his council and said, ‘It is better for me to believe than to die.’ And he believed as did many others that day.”
Patrick almost seemed to delight in taking risks to spread the gospel. He once wrote, “I must take this decision disregarding risks involved and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God’s name boldly in every place, so that even after my death, a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children.” And what a legacy he has.
From Kingdom to Kingdom
He spent much of his time moving his missionary team around the country’s one hundred or so tribal kingdoms. He knew that if the king became a Christian, the druids would lose power and the people would be more open to the message.
But Patrick didn’t come in as a conquering hero. He came in with humility. He would ask the king for permission to camp near their settlement and then gradually send team members to engage the people in conversation and help them in their daily lives. They would pray for sick people, help the demon possessed, give counselling and mediate conflicts. Patrick would take questions from the people and then speak publicly to give the answers. They would do open-air speaking, telling stories and parables, singing songs, using visual arts, and even drama to capture the Celtic people’s remarkable imaginations.
The most famous of these visual arts is the Shamrock, the three leafed clover, which is said to have been used to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine, with God as the unity of three persons, bound together in love, became a foundational model for the Celtic Christian model. God was a family of persons and invited us to join his family. God in the Trinity, is always a companion, a friend, a partner.
This strategy was a success. As kings and townspeople converted, they would give their sons to Patrick, in an old Irish custom, for educating. They became his disciples. Eventually, many of the sons and daughters of the Irish were persuaded to become monks and nuns, priests and missionaries.
Patrick moved from kingdom to kingdom working much the same way. Once he converted a number of pagans, he built a church – not a large, Roman church, but a Celtic one. He was always sensitive to the needs of the people he had grown to love. He wasn’t trying to turn these “terrible barbarians” into “good Romans”, but used their beautiful culture to share the good news of Jesus Christ. His style of ministry almost cost him his position as bishop when some of the British bishops were offended that Patrick was going beyond his “role” and spending most of his time with “pagans”, “sinners” and “barbarians.”
One of his new disciples would be ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop, and left in charge of the new church. If the chieftain was gracious enough to grant a site for a monastery as well as a church, it was built too and functioned as a missionary station. Before departing, Patrick would give the new converts (or their pastors) a compendium of Christian doctrine and the canons to guide them.
One ancient document called “The Annals of the Four Masters” says that, through Patrick’s team, 30 or 40 of Ireland’s 150 tribes became Christian, 700 churches were planted and 1000 new ministers were ordained.
But no matter how much success he had with the kings, Patrick saw the greatest enemy as one he was intimately familiar with – slavery. He was the first Christian to strongly speak out, and fight against, the practice. But it wasn’t just the Irish who were taking British slaves – but also British who were stealing people from Ireland. Patrick himself wrote a letter excommunicating a man named Coroticus who had carried off some of Patrick’s own Irish converts into slavery.
“Ravenous wolves have gulped down the Lord’s own flock which was flourishing in Ireland,” he wrote, “and the whole church cries out and laments for its sons and daughters.” He called Coroticus’ deeds “wicked, so horrible, so unutterable,” and told him to repent and to free the converts.
We don’t know if Coroticus ever did free his slaves, but we know that within his lifetime, Patrick ended the entire Irish slave trade.
Self-Doubt and Great Faith
One thing that comes as a surprise to many is that despite his amazing legacy, success as a missionary, his bravery before the druids and kings, and his deep faith in God, Patrick was terribly self-conscious and never felt adequate to the task – especially regarding his educational background. He once wrote about the frustration he felt when trying to explain things to more educated people, “I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open for I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.” But he didn’t let his lack of education, or inability to articulate his thoughts stop him. He gave thanks to God, “who stirred up me, a fool, from the midst of those who are considered wise and learned in the practice of the law as well as persuasive in their speech and in every other way and ahead of these others, inspired me who is so despised by the world.”
Over and over again, Patrick wrote that he was not worthy to be a bishop. And he wasn’t the only one with doubts. Despite how difficult the mission was, and how successful Patrick was being, at one point, his ecclesiastical elders in Britain sent some men to investigate his mission. These men brought up many concerns and accusations – including a rash moment of (unspecified) sin from his youth. These concerns may have even been made public to his missionary team. Patrick reeled from the accusations. But he wrote back about God’s provision during that time, “Indeed he bore me up, though I was trampled underfoot in such a way. For although I was put down and shamed, not too much harm came to me.”
These men didn’t have to tell Patrick that he wasn’t fit for the position – he knew that. He never felt that he was truly equipped for the job God had given him. But what he lacked in formal training, he certainly made up for with a strong prayer life, a deep dependence on God, and a real sense of God’s presence in his life. He wrote, “I have known God as my authority, for he knows all things even before they are done. He would frequently forewarn me of many things by his divine response.” His self-doubt kept him closely dependent on God.
In fact, Patrick recorded eight dreams which he saw as personal messages from God. Scattered throughout his writings are tributes to God’s goodness to him during times of trouble, confusion and fear. He would say things like, “Tirelessly, I thank my God, who kept me faithful on the day I was tried, so that today I might offer to him, the Lord Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of my soul. He saved me in all dangers and perils….So, whatever may come my way, good or bad, I equally tackle it, always giving thanks to God.”
We don’t know for sure where or how he died, but according to the recorded history of Ireland, Patrick’s mission to Ireland ended in his death in 493. He would have been in his seventies. There are three different Monasteries that claim to house his remains. The day we know as St. Patrick’s day, March 17th, has been a day of feasting in his honour since as early as the year 797.
Though it is sometimes to separate fact from fiction in the stories of St. Patrick, everyone agrees that he has an amazing legacy. He was the first great missionary to bring the gospel outside of the boundaries of Romans civilization.
He was the ultimate model for Celtic Christians who would follow him in his work. Hundreds of Irish monks left their homeland, just as Patrick had, to spread the gospel to Scotland, England and Europe. But they didn’t just model his mission – they followed his faith.
Patrick was a man of continuous prayer, enraptured by God and deeply in love with Scripture. That love didn’t stay with the book, but was lived in service to others as a preacher, teacher and practical missionary. He had a rich, poetic imagination, and a special openness to listen to God in dreams and visions. He appreciated and enjoyed nature and creation.
He is most worthy of the title “saint”, which means “set apart”, because certainly had a divine mission and became an inspiring example. Let us take his example, as he ran the race well, following the footsteps of Christ, and become men and women of courageous faith.
Note: My seminary profs would have my hide for this because of the way I adapted and outright copied from the sources below (though I noticed they did the same to each other, so I don’t feel too bad), but if I sited every single part I used then this post would have become an unreadable mess of punctuation. Let’s just assume that I assembled the story, adapted some of the language to make it easier to read, but I will take credit for none of the research.
- “Patrick The Saint – The Story Behind The Legends”; by Mary Cagney – CHRISTIAN HISTORY MAGAZINE
- Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know (p. 230). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
- George G. Hunter. (2000), The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Abingdon Publishers