St. Patrick’s Day is upon us and apart from the name Patrick, the color green, images of shamrocks galore, and little leprechaun’s, very few people know either the man, his history or why we celebrate him (and should celebrate him!) every year. Here is my brief historical synopsis of Patrick and why he is certainly worth celebrating.
According to history, Patrick or Patricius was born around 372AD with the name Succat or Maewyn Succat (although some date his birth as late as the early part of the 5th Century). Although Patrick is most famous in Irish culture, he was not born in Ireland but near the shores of Scotland. J.H. Merle D’Aubigne in his text The History of the Reformation set Patrick’s birthplace on the banks of the Clyde not far from Glasgow Scotland. Other historians argue that perhaps Patrick was born in Dumbarton. But regardless of what village he was born in, all conclude that Patrick was in fact a Scotsman.
Apparently Patrick was an average run-of-the-mill child for the 4th century. d’Aubigne, describes Patrick in the following manner. He writes, “…in the Christian village of Bonavern, now Kilpatrick, a little boy, of tender heart, lively temperament, and indefatigable activity, passed the earlier days of his life…He was fond of pleasure, and delighted to be the leader to his youthful companions.” But as is so often the case for young people, Patrick strayed from the Christian faith his parents taught him and found himself in rebellion from God at an early age. Patrick recounts his early rebellion in his Confession.
“I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people—and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. An the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, were now my littleness is placed among strangers.”
When Patrick was 16, Irish pirates came ashore and took Patrick captive, selling him and others into slavery. For the next six years Patrick was sent into the fields to keep swine and cattle while living like an animal himself. He endured long bouts of hunger and thirst and for much of the time was isolated from other human beings. It was here in this “desert experience” that Patrick harkens back to the catechisms of his youth. Again from his Confession, Patrick writes,
“And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son…and many times a day I prayed—the love of God and his fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me—as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.”
Patrick was a converted man. In the midst of this heathen land as a slave to a pagan people, God opened the heart of Patrick and God’s grace was irresistible. d’Aubigne records Patrick’s conversion this way. “He turned repenting towards that meek Savior of whom Conchessa (his mother) had so often spoken; he fell at his knees in that heathen land, and imagined he felt the arms of a father uplifting the prodigal son….The gospel was written with the finger of God on the tablets of his heart.”
It would be this same efficacious grace that would save much of this pagan land. Patrick not only came to know Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, but we can surmise that he also acquired quite an education while in captivity. Although the education he received was not one that would serve him well in academic circles, little did Patrick know that in God’s providential plan, He was preparing Patrick to one day evangelize the ancient Celtic pagans.
Patrick had to first learn the culture and the language and the customs of these Celts. During his time in captivity Patrick came to learn the language of the people he would soon evangelize. He learned their ways and customs. Being that he was the slave of an Irish Chieftain, Patrick would witness the false religion of druidism unclose and know it so well, that he would be able to combat it with the truth of Christianity. Patrick’s time in Ireland was, from his perspective, a time of slavery and captivity. But from God’s providential perspective, Patrick’s time in Ireland was a primitive seminary training ground that prepared him for future missionary work.
In his Confession, Patrick writes that while in captivity he received a supernatural message from God. The message was one of fasting and prayer and that he would soon return to his homeland. Patrick writes of a second “supernatural” message that came shortly after that said, “Behold your ship is ready.” With that, Patrick escaped from his master and ran 200 miles to a southeastern harbor. Upon his arrival, there was in fact a boat leaving for Western Europe. After his escape from Ireland, Patrick speaks of being captured a second time but this period of enslavement lasted for only a couple of months. Twice a captive and twice now rescued, Patrick eventually makes it home.
Now there is a huge gap of unaccounted for time in Patrick’s autobiographical Confession before he returns to his home in Scotland. Some historians speculate that Patrick spent some time training for ministry near Cannes France. But in all honesty there is nothing in history that can prove or disprove this theory. Whatever Patrick was up to, we do know that he eventually made it home to his family in Scotland and it was upon his arrival that shortly after, Patrick felt drawn back to his captive land of Ireland. Again, Patrick wrote of a vision or dream that summoned him to Ireland: “And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, ‘The voice of the Irish” and as I read the beginning of the letter, I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice—they were those beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western Sea—and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: ‘We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.’ And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry.”
Patrick had made up his mind that it was God calling him to his divine providential duty. Patrick must carry the gospel to the Irish pagans who were his captors. Much like his earlier life, the details surrounding Patrick’s ministry in Ireland, are sketchy. Fact and fable are mixed together, making it difficult to discern that which happened and that which was embellished by those who loved Patrick and sought to see his legend grow.
Historians do believe that Patrick arrived back on the shores of Ireland, this time of his own accord and with some ministerial training, at around 432 AD. Serving as a bishop for the Church, Patrick was seen as the “Apostle to Ireland”. According to tradition, Patrick first landed in Ulster with about twenty-five followers.
Over the next thirty years, legend shows that much of what Patrick accomplished in Ireland is filled with amazing miracles as well as overwhelming conversions to Christ. While it is true that Patrick traveled tirelessly throughout Ireland spreading the Christian message wherever he went, many of the miracles he supposedly performed have no historical basis to say nothing of Scriptural support. One such miracle has Patrick leading all the snakes out of the country. First off, there were no snakes in Ireland. Second, what was probably being written here was analogous. It is true that Patrick preached the gospel to all men and in that manner he did in fact drive many of the snakes (the pagans) from the island of Ireland. Legend also tells us that Patrick used the Irish shamrock to explain the ‘three-in-one’ Trinity to the Celts. Whether or not that story is true it still makes for a good catechism lesson today.
Patrick was perfect for Ireland. His years as a slave gave him a knowledge of the people and the culture that made him tailored for the Celts. Patrick understood the nature of the Celtic ways, and he used this knowledge for the advancement of Christ. The Celts had a deep insecurity from worshipping fearsome and fickle gods. Patrick explained that the one true God is not arbitrary and bloodthirsty but gracious and loving. The Celtic paganism that flourished through magic was eliminated and in its place, Patrick taught the Celts about the proper role of the sacraments. But most of all, Patrick explained, the Celts need not sacrifice humans or animals any more. The God that Patrick preached, had sent Jesus His Son to be the only human sacrifice that can give true peace and salvation.
During the course of his ministry, Patrick continued to face opposition from his enemies on an almost daily basis as he worked to see his adopted country turn to Christ. He never became discouraged and in turn he relied upon the grace of God to see him through trial and tribulation. Over the course of his ministry, Patrick not only was used by God to see thousands of Irish conversions, but also to establish hundreds of churches that would form what is now known as the beginnings of Celtic Christianity. To call what happened in Ireland anything less than a revival is not to appreciate what took place.
Through Patrick’s preaching of the gospel to the Irish, “…Celtic Christianity produced great numbers of monks who evangelized Western Europe during the sixth and seventh centuries.” Thomas Cahill writes in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization. The distant seeds that were planted in the rough barbarian hills of Ireland ignited a fire that would burn for the next several hundred years. Ireland was the only western country to escape the Germanic invasions throughout the 4th and 5th centuries.
During this time of “exile” from the Roman Church, Ireland developed a thriving Christian civilization through the Celtic Church. Ripe with educators, artists, poets and theologians, the Celtic Christias flourished gloriously just out of reach of the Roman Empire that was dying a long slow death and the church in Rome that was apostatizing and also dying a long slow death. As Rome fell, the Irish monks took copious notes and copied anything and everything they could put their hands on: Plato, Virgil, Cicero and of course the Bible. According to Thomas Cahill, this act alone is what saved Western Civilization.
The Celtic Church grew strong and vibrant while the rest of Christianity along side of the Roman Empire was all but extinguished. As a result, says theologian FF Bruce, “When darkness fell over a great part of Western Europe, as it began to do even before the death of Patrick, the true light continued to burn brightly in the island of saints and scholars and was carried forth from there to rekindle the lamp which had been extinguished.” With death there is always resurrection. This was Western Civilization’s death and resurrection. And it all happened under the missionary work of a former slave named Patrick. So as we lift our pints of beer and celebrate this day, let us do so by truly remembering the man! Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, indeed.