(this is a re-post of an essay originally written in 2012)
This weekend, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Sadly, this day has become a convenient excuse for drunkenness and debauchery instead of an opportunity to pay homage to a heroic missionary leader. So this St. Patty’s Day, drink a Guinness… but do it while prayerfully honoring one of the greatest Christian missionaries in history.
St. Patrick was born in Britain sometime in the closing years of the 4th century. We don’t know the exact date, but 390 is a decent estimate. At that time, the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world, including Britain. Patrick was born into a family which was ethnically British but culturally Roman (much like the Apostle Paul, who was ethnically Jewish but a citizen of Rome). Patrick’s father was an official in the local Roman government and a deacon in the local church.
At this early stage in church history, there was no Protestant church or Roman Catholic church; there was simply the Christian church. In fact, Christianity had only been a legal religion for 80 years, since the Edict of Milan issued by the Emperor Constantine in 313. During those 80 years, the church had been plagued by heretics and false teachers and had been split politically into Western and Eastern factions. St. Patrick’s life overlapped the lives of both Augustine (354-430), he most influential preacher in the Western church, and John Chrysostom (345-407), the most influential preacher in the East. The weight of these two theological giants is still felt today. But where Augustine and Chrysostom are known for their theological legacy, St. Patrick is known for his missional legacy. Here’s how it began.
One night when Patrick was 15 years old, a band of Irish slave raiders attacked his family’s villa and kidnapped Patrick and some other able-bodied young men. They put the captives in chains, marched them to a boat waiting on the coast, and sailed them back across the Irish Sea to be sold into slavery in Ireland.
Ireland was a wild and mysterious place, known to most Romans only through stories. The Roman author Solinus wrote around the year 200 that the Irish enjoyed “draining the blood of their slain enemies and smearing it on their own faces.” St. Jerome, in the late 360s, wrote of meeting Irish savages in Gaul who would cut the nipples off of captured enemy soldiers. These accounts are probably exaggerated; but they were all Patrick would have known, and they were undoubtedly running through his mind during that voyage across the sea. He had been stolen away from everything that was familiar, at the hands of a people he would later call “the hordes of barbarians who live at the edge of the world.”
Patrick was sold to a farmer and spent the next six years of his life – from age 15 until age 21 – as a slave, shepherding sheep (a strangely providential task for a future pastor). God used those years of hard labor to bring Patrick to saving faithin Christ. In Patrick’s own words:
It was here in Ireland that God first opened my heart, so that – even though it was a late start – I became aware of my failings and began to turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God. For he looked down on my miserable condition and had compassion for me, young and foolish as I was… Day by day I began to pray more frequently, and more and more my love of God and my faith in him and reverence for him began to increase.
One night, as Patrick lay sleeping, he had a dream. A voice told him to flee his master and return home to Britain. So a few nights later, he escaped under cover of darkness and began a 200-mile journey to the sea. He secured a spot on board a merchant ship bound for Britain and was soon reunited with his family.
Patrick had been a teenager when he was kidnapped; now he was a young man, matured by hard work and strengthened by the afflictions of slavery. He was in every way a different person than he had been.
And the world was different, too. While Patrick had been in Ireland, a world-changing event had taken place: Rome had fallen. The golden age of Rome was about to give way to the medieval age of the Anglo-Saxons. Patrick was living at a turning point in history. Little did he know that he would help to write the next chapter.
Shortly after his return to his family, Patrick had another vision while sleeping. An Irish man named Victorinus was asking him to come back to Ireland and preach. He took this vision, along with 2 others which followed, as a clear calling from God to return to Ireland as a missionary. And so he began to prepare for that vocation.
The years between Patrick’s escape from slavery and his return to Ireland are a mystery. All we know is that he eventually became a bishop, which was a rank of high honor. Historians surmise that the course of Patrick’s training followed a clearly defined pattern. He would have begun as a layman, serving within a local church. The next step would have been to become a deacon, assisting the priest with pastoral duties like visiting the sick, serving the poor, and baptizing converts. Next, he would have gained formal theological and biblical training under a bishop (there were no seminaries to attend). At whatever time the bishop considered him to be qualified, Patrick would have been ordained as a priest. This whole process of moving from layman to priest probably took the better part of a decade.
In the year 431, history tells us that Pope Celestine commissioned a man named Palladius as the first bishop to Ireland. Palladius arrived in Ireland in 431 and left shortly thereafter, because, according to one medieval writer, “the wild men of Ireland would not listen to his preaching.” Perhaps Patrick was one of the priests who accompanied Palladius on his journey; or perhaps Patrick was sent to Ireland as a replacement after Palladius left. Again, we don’t know exactly how Patrick got to Ireland. We simply know that he was finally sent there, and spent the rest of his life preaching the gospel among the Irish.
The culture of pagan Ireland was vastly different from that of Roman Britain. Britain was a Roman colony with a centralized, democratic Roman government; Ireland was a tribal society where rival kings ruled over their sovereign territories. Britain was largely Christianized; Ireland was steeped in Celtic paganism. In Britain, it would have been common for people to gather together to worship God in a local church. In Ireland, it would have been common for a tribe to offer a human sacrifice under the direction of a Druid priest in order to cast an evil curse on an enemy tribe.
Patrick engaged this unorthodox place using unorthodox methods. He regularly paid bribes to Druid tribal leaders in order to secure passage through their territory. When questioned about this practice, he defended it as a necessary measure in order to ensure the advance of the gospel. But perhaps the most unorthodox thing Patrick did was simply to STAY. He saw himself as a bond-servant, a slave to the calling God had given him. As he wrote in his Confession:
I came to Ireland to preach the good news… I have had many hard times, even to the point of being enslaved again, but I traded in my free birth for the good of others. If I am worthy, I am ready even to lay down my life willingly and without hesitation for his name. Here, in Ireland, is where I wish to live out my final days, if God will permit me.
I would love to go home to Britain and see my family… But even if I wanted to leave… I am bound by the spirit of God, who would object and condemn me. I can’t leave unfinished the work I’ve begun. Christ my master has commanded me to stay here in Ireland for the rest of my life.
It’s no accident that St. Patrick’s Day is identified with all things Irish. Within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival, Ireland was a Christian nation. One man gave his life to see a nation reached with the gospel – and today that nation still celebrates his influence.
As a fitting way of celebrating St. Patrick’s true legacy, I leave you with Patrick’s Creed: the profession of faith he taught to his Irish converts to summarize the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity.
We profess that there is no other God – there never was and there never will be. God our Father was not born, nor did he have any beginning. God himself is the beginning of all things…
And we proclaim that Jesus Christ is his son, who has been with God always, from the beginning of time and before the creation of the world – though in a way we cannot put into words. Through him everything in the universe was created, both what we can see and what is invisible. He was born as a human being and he conquered death, rising into the heavens to be with God. And God gave him power greater than any creature of the heavens or earth or under the earth, so that someday everyone will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and God. We believe in him and we wait for him to return very soon. He will be the judge of the living and the dead, rewarding every person according to their actions.
And God has generously poured out on us his Holy Spirit as a gift and a token of immortality. This Spirit makes all faithful believers into children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.
This we proclaim. We worship one God in three parts, by the sacred name of the Trinity.