Most people know little about St. Patrick other than he’s the patron saint of Ireland, his association with the shamrock, and the Day the world honors his memory and celebrates Irish culture.
Oh yeah, green.
I used to be one of those people, but I’ve discovered how much more there is to know about him. In fact, Patrick’s life reads not unlike the life of the apostle Paul, only with more historical insight. Allow me to recount some important and truly fascinating parts of Patrick’s life and briefly share what they teach us.
What Patrick Teaches Us
1. God will use misfortune in our lives to prepare us for great things to come. Patrick hailed from a wealthy Roman family living in Scotland (or Wales). His father was a municipal councilor and a deacon; his grandfather was a priest. Patrick, however, bore no interest in religion.
Around age 16, Irish bandits attacked his family’s estate and abducted him. He was sold into slavery to a tribal chieftain and druid high priest. For the next six years Patrick worked as a shepherd. He avows, however, that it was during that time that his faith increased and he grew close to God, becoming engrossed with prayer and ignited with spiritual fervor. He also acquired the Celtic language and learned the customs of the druids.
In his sixth year, during a time of prayer, he heard a voice say to him, “It is well that you fast. Soon you will go to your own country.” and “See, your ship is ready.” Patrick then fled some 200 miles to the coast where he discovered a ship ready to sail, but he was denied boarding by the captain. Pleading with God, he finally got aboard and sailed three days to Gaul (France) but wandered around 28 days with his compatriots, wearied and faint with hunger until his fellow, non-believing travelers challenged him to beseech his God for food. No sooner than Patrick finished encouraging them about God’s providence, a herd of wild boars appeared on which the group subsisted for the next two days. Soon enough, Patrick reached Britain and immediately devoted himself to the study of ministry.
- Did you think of Joseph, or Moses? Patrick’s story gives us hope that when our world comes crashing down, there may be a higher plan at work. We rarely notice in those moments how we’re gaining…experience, skill, connections, witness. Yet God is indeed orchestrating his plan, and we’ll marvel to see how it all comes together.
2. God gives us grace for specific tasks. A few years later and more than once, Patrick received visions prefiguring his ministry. In one particular dream, he saw an Irish man come to him with a bundle of letters. Opening one, it read “The Voice of the Irish”; then he heard children’s voices coming from the letter beckoning him to return to Ireland. Meanwhile, Patrick found mentorship with a renowned bishop and entered the priesthood. He also made several missionary journeys.
At this time the Pope was ardently stamping out heresies, and it was during the (first) Council of Ephesus that Patrick received his commission to take the gospel to Ireland. The task had previously been granted to Palladius, the first bishop to Ireland who preached there five years prior to Patrick. But Palladius was fiercely banished from Ireland and abandoned further ministry for fear of a certain chieftain.
It was at this time that Patrick’s mentor suggested him to the Pope. Patrick had been a faithful disciple for 18 years now, was full of wisdom, and bore some renown. The Pope approved and bequeathed to him the name Patrick, meaning “nobleman”. Patrick’s real name is believed to be Maegwyn Succat.
Patrick explains in his Confession that people didn’t understand why he would endanger himself to evangelize a barbaric society that knew nothing about God. People secretly talked about him, yet he never viewed it as their malice but puzzlement. Still, he was not phased by it and admits, “Indeed, I was not quick to recognize the grace that was in me.”
- God chooses us for the tasks he has given us the grace to handle. Palladius could preach in Ireland, but Patrick had the facility to reach Ireland like no one else could because his whole life had prepared him for doing just that. And, as you will see, he possessed the heart, character, skill, and focus to obey God in this calling.
3. Grace should characterize our dealings with the lost. Patrick returns to the port that scared off Palladius, and the druids quickly impeded him. He withdrew and opted for a friendlier route into Ireland. So he returned to his old master with the intent to pay the price of his own ransom and to bless him in the name of Christ in return of the cruelty he had experienced. But his master feared Patrick’s retaliation upon receiving word of his coming. Shockingly, he burned down his property and committed suicide in the fire.
Travelling northward, Patrick encountered a chieftain, Dichu, intent on halting his journey. Dichu drew his sword to strike Patrick, but his arm suddenly froze. He was unable to move it until he submitted to Patrick. Dichu was so deeply affected by the miracle and Patrick’s kindness that he inquired of the gospel and subsequently offered Patrick a large barn to use as his church in the village. This incident is recorded as Patrick’s first miracle, and the church became a favorite retreat for Patrick later in his life.
Patrick was a diligent ambassador for Christ throughout Ireland, especially among the tribal leaders and kings. Patrick’s strategy was to convert chieftains who might convert their clans. He tirelessly worked to share the faith with them, regularly baptizing them and their families as converts into the church.
- The maxim goes, “You can draw more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” Patrick’s life and ministry prove the point well. We hinder ministry by ramming the gospel down others’ throats or by having something to prove with our beliefs. Jesus is the subject of our faith, and Jesus must be the essence of our approach to others.
4. God protects his servants and will confirm his work with miracles, if necessary. Dichu informed Patrick of a regular pagan celebration that was approaching at which all the chieftains and priests would be in attendance. Patrick decided to accept the occasion as a chance to proclaim the reality of the one true God. As part of the ritual, the ruling monarch of Ireland had decreed that a light, or bonfire, should be lit on a certain hill and that there should be no other bonfires seen in Ireland at that time.
It turned out to be March 26—Easter Sunday—in 433 A.D. Patrick, in full episcopal regalia, and his contingency were stationed at a monastery at the opposite end of the valley. There they lit a light in defiance of the decree. The king sent a band of warriors to kill Patrick and to extinguish the fire, but Patrick and his entourage eluded them and neither could the fire be extinguished. When summoned by the king, Patrick explained that he brought a new light, the light of Christ.
It is reported that a spiritual showdown then occurred. The druids using their incantations swept the hills with darkness, but Patrick prayed and the dark clouds retreated and the sun shone brightly. One of the druid priests was seen levitating under a demonic power, but at Patrick’s prayer he was dropped against the rocks. Having witnessed the power of God, many of the chieftains and the king’s own noblemen bowed to Patrick. Moreover, the king permitted Patrick freedom to preach Christ in Ireland.
- This battle, so reminiscent of Elijah combating the prophets of Baal, is considered the pivotal moment the gospel gained a foothold in Ireland. Other miracles are recorded about Patrick, including those detailing his escapes from death and prophetic insight. Further, we are reminded of the words of Gamaliel: “Leave these men alone!…For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
Patrick is a remarkable example of a life given to the gospel of Christ and is rightly called the patron saint of Ireland. He baptized more than 120,000 Irish and planted over 300 churches. Let us love and serve Christ and others with the same diligence and fervor Patrick possessed.
Read St. Patrick’s Confession