I took this photo of Saint Patrick on my last trip to the Emerald Isle, near the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland.
Every year Americans of proclaimed Irish ancestry celebrate a day dedicated to Saint Patrick by wearing green, listening to loud music (possibly traditional folk music,) and consuming considerable quanities of alcohol in various forms (including Guinness Stout, which originated from a brewery owned by Irish Christian brewer Oscar Guinness.) Most people however don’t know jack about the actual man Patrick. He is surrounded in folklore, myth, and legend, just like many of the heroic figures of ancient history. However, after some honest research and investigation, I can honestly say that Patrick earned his way into history books and is second only to the Apostle Paul in his missional legacy. Saint Patrick was stronger, more full of love, and smarter than just about anybody else I can think of in historical Christianity. Bold claim? We’ll see. Let me ignore the myth and folklore and simply go on what is generally accepted about Patrick from the limited sources that still exist.
Patrick Was… A Roman!? Patrick was a Roman citizen from a noble family in Britain in the mid to late 4th Century. When he was about 16 years old he was kidnapped by Irish pirates, shipped back to the Emerald Isle and sold into slavery. While there living a second class existence, he learned the ancient Celtic culture, spoke their language, and saw the world through their eyes. After six years of working as a slave, eating what slaves eat, & sleeping where slaves sleep in a cold and rainy climate, he escaped from his druid slave-owner and headed to the shore without any money or personal belongings. Inexplicably, he paid for his voyage in cash (probably a great story there lost to time), hiked back to his family’s estate and was reunited with his mother and father, who were overjoyed to see their boy alive again. That alone is a great script waiting for some love in Hollywood. But it is just the intro…
Patrick FORGAVE His Slave Masters?? Spending night after night alone as a slave under the stars watching sheep, Patrick spent a lot of time in prayer with God, and contemplated Grace in Jesus Christ. Once safely home, Patrick studied within the Roman church and was ordained as a priest. His motivations were unlike most others. He didn’t angle for a prestigious position in Rome, or a mystical pilgramage to Jerusalem. Patrick felt called in the depths of his heart to reach out to the very people who had kidnapped him, devastated his family, and lowered his existence to that of a slave. He saw firsthand the darkness of a culture and people without Jesus Christ, and desperately wanted to bring hope to those who had done so much to extinguish his own. Patrick campaigned for some time to return to the island to do ministry, was at times overlooked and passed over, and finally was commisioned to travel to Ireland to begin a new life. There was no fortune awaiting him, no prestige in an island of barbarians outside the relative interest of the Empire, and no career building possibilities ahead of him. There was just the opportunity to offer the hope of salvation in Jesus Christ to a culture that he had so vividly experienced to be without it. He gave up everything he could have had to bring the Gospel to those who robbed everything he left behind.
Countercultural: Patrick doesn’t fit the historical mold of “mainstream Christianity.” Patrick Was Smarter… though smarter may not even be the right word. Patrick seemingly by nature did what modern authors and leaders currently call “missional” and “relational” evangelism. The contrast between Patrick’s emerging “Celtic” form of evangelism and the predominant “Roman” church is interesting, to say the least. In fact, it almost seems to parallel many somewhat opposing methodologies that exist in the church today.
For instance, while the Romans built walled compounds with armed guards and exported Roman culture across the globe, Patrick contextualized the Gospel and lived among the locals. Stopping there for a moment, which methodology do you believe is most effective today? Would any reasonable church try to reach out to a poverty stricken neighborhood by building a walled mansion in a low income neighborhood, transplanting people from another country to live there, build a church building, and call it ministry? Huh?
Rome exported Latin speaking, formally educated Roman citizens to spread Roman culture and religious practice, yet Patrick spoke the local dialect and trained up the Irish to serve as leaders from within their own communities. Would we say that today this practice is too ancient? Would we recommend spreading our own church culture around and call it evangelism or would we do our best to communicate the unchanging Gospel in the ever changing context of different cultures? Which example appears to fulfill the “make Disciples…” Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20? Which is better, the Roman way or Patrick’s way?
Rome’s place in history is one of conquest and imperialism. Patrick’s legacy is one of strength, love, and wisdom. Rome established their culture around the world as if it was salvation in and of itself. Patrick believed that Jesus was our only hope, and told His story in the language of the people he sought to bring the Gospel to. Rome’s example just doesn’t seem to reflect the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Savior of all. Patrick spent time within a culture sharing the Gospel in much the same way Jesus spent time in Samaria in John 4:38-42. Patrick is a hero to anyone wishing to see Christ glorified and share the hope of His cross and His empty tomb.
Saint Patrick deserves his annual recognition, parades, festivities, and celebration. He was strong in hardship, full of love in his chosen career in ministry, and smart enough to ignore established and well funded bad methods of religion in order to share the Gospel effectively. He may not have been born in Ireland, but neither was I or most of you. That still won’t stop me from wearing the green on March 17th, and it shouldn’t stop you either. Patrick’s story must be told, and retold, until the redemptive history of the human race is complete. Until then, let’s party!
Recommended reading on Saint Patrick and Celtic contributions to world evangelism: How The Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, and also: The Celtic Way of Evangelism, by George Hunter, III