There are many myths about Saint Patrick. What I gleaned about the real Patrick, I did from his two writings: Confession (which I will quote from a lot) and Letter to the Soldier’s of Coroticus. I also recommend a church history book by Michael Haykin.
Patrick was born around AD 390. He grew up in a rural coastal village near what is today Wales, England. He lived under Roman rule, but by this time the empire was shrinking and crumbling.
Patrick’s grandfather was a pastor and his father was a deacon. His family members were devote Christians and he learned the Scripture from a young age. However, as Patrick put it, he wasn’t serious about his family’s faith nor their teaching, rather he lived on the wild side (as a stereotypical pastor’s kid). He would be considered a practical atheist living as if God did not exist.
Do you have a pastor or church leader as a close relative? While this is a wonderful blessing a Christian family doesn’t guarantee you will be a Christian yourself. A young person must follow in the footsteps of Jesus and have faith in him alone, not just that of his family.
Slavery and Salvation
Historically, Rome never conquered Ireland. As Roman soldiers began pulling out of England there were more organized attacks by the Irish. On one occasion Patrick’s village was attacked. He said,
“I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved. The Lord brought his strong anger upon us, and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth. It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was.” (1)
In fact, Patrick became a Christian during his captivity in Ireland,
“It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognized my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance. He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil. He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son.” (2)
After six difficult and dangerous years as a slave (35), Patrick, escaped Ireland by walking 200 miles to the coast and found a boat to England (16-22). The journey itself was his intro to missions. Overall, God used his time in Ireland for good. He said,
“That is why I cannot be silent – nor would it be good to do so – about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.” (3)
Calling and Training
After Patrick returned to England and reunited with his family he said,
“Again with my parents in Britain. They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again.” (23)
Isn’t that sweet!?
Patrick stayed for a while in England (and possibly in France) to study the Scriptures. This time made a huge impact on him and his love for the Bible. His writings are saturated with quotes from the Bible. He did cite parts of a creed, which may have been used in his home church in Britain. The creed shows the influence of the Nicene Creed from AD 381.
Although, Patrick was a contemporary of Jerome who wrote the Vulgate (Latin Bible) and Augustine, you don’t see them referenced in Patrick’s writings. They lived far from each other and their educations were very different. Patrick by his own admission said he had a meager education (9-13), yet this likely helped him relate to the Irish who looked down on the high-minded Celts and Gauls of Europe. Yet God uses both educated and uneducated in his service!
Ordained as a pastor, Patrick, shepherded in Britain for many years. At the age of 48 (the average life span was 35), when he should be cashing in on his retirement, he instead had a dream. In the dream a group of Irish called him to return and share the good news (23). Echoing Paul’s call to Macedonia (Acts 16:9), he believed the dream was from God. He was appointed bishop to Ireland by his church and was sent out as a missionary. This is when took on a common Irish name Patricius or Patrick.
Return and Mission
Patrick returned to the place of his pain with the message of joy—place where he was once a slave he now brought good news of true freedom. In those days there were not many Christians in Ireland. It would have been considered unreached and unwanting (34). Palladius, the first known missionary to Ireland failed and went home discouraged after only a few years.
Patrick understood the Irish. He had lived with them before for six years. He already knew their culture and language. And he loved for them. When the people know that you understand them and love them, they infer that maybe God understands and loves them too. Patrick wasn’t about making civilized Roman Christians, he aimed to see a people and a culture transformed by Christ. He traveled all over the island staying mostly in the northern half. He preached boldly against paganism and got arrested many times by the Irish for stirring up the people against their customs.
Once Patrick stepped foot in Ireland he never returned home to England (43). He spent nearly 30 years in Ireland. He planted around 300 churches, established various Bible schools, and baptized “countless number” into the Church (est. 120,000). He led both kings and peasants to faith in Christ. He never cashed in on that retirement. He died in Ireland around March 17, 461 AD.
The Celtic Church that Patrick helped to advance and establish became for 600 years one of the most evangelistic and mission-minded movements in all of Europe before it was absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church in 1100 AD. The churches Patrick planted believed in salvation by faith through grace. Celibacy was not forced or a requirement. Women were a vital part of ministry. The Bible was intensely emphasized, studied and memorized. Missions was a high priority.
Now that’s a legacy! And I will share more about Patrick’s legacy in my next post.