St. Patrick’s Day is the granddaddy of all celebrations for people of Irish descent—and those who claim it for the day—but the historical figure behind the holiday has a greater legacy than parades, green beer and leprechauns. The real Patrick shows how one person of conviction sometimes can change a nation’s character.
No one expected Patrick’s life to turn out the way it did. Born in England during the fifth century, he was kidnapped at sixteen by a band of pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave. Sold to a farmer who put him to work as a shepherd, Patrick was marked for the rest of his life by the experience. He later began his autobiography by confessing
I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many
He spent the next six years alone in the wild regions of western Ireland, subject to long periods of cold and hunger. But during that period something else happened, too. Patrick met a personal God and began to use the long hours of solitude for prayer and worship. Like young David in the Bible, he found that his suffering became a crucible for forming a faith as strong as steel.
At age twenty-two Patrick escaped his slavery and found his way back to England, where he lived off and on for the next eighteen years while making formal preparations for the priesthood. To his heart experience during the wilderness years he added the formal studies necessary for a lasting ministry.
Then, around his fortieth year Patrick saw the vision that determined the rest of his life and led to the legacy that affects us today:
I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
Like the apostle Paul, whose similar vision in Acts 16 summoned him to Europe with the gospel, Patrick obeyed the heavenly voice and left the relative security and comfort of a Christianized England to return to the place of his former slavery as a missionary bishop.
The popular conceptions of the ministry he established in Ireland have more to do with folk religion than with the gospel. He didn’t use a shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Trinity. He didn’t miraculously chase all the snakes out of Ireland. He never met a leprechaun.
But what Patrick did accomplish was more amazing. He travelled tirelessly throughout the country preaching, ministering, praying, building churches and training ministers. He didn’t play favorites and confronted kings and the poor alike with their need of the gospel. He baptized thousands from every walk of life. He faced down the druids, the priests of the ancient Celtic religions in the region. He showed no fear in the face of opposition, no fatigue in light of his responsibilities and no loss of energy as he grew older. By virtue of his faith in God alone, Patrick literally changed the character of the nation.
Toward the end of his life, Patrick described the impact of his ministry on the people of Ireland this way:
Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!
Before Patrick, Ireland was filled with warring kings, suffering people and paganism. By the time of his death (he died on March 17, the day we celebrate), the nation was so thoroughly evangelized that it was known as the most Christian place in Europe. The missionaries it sent out in later generations became the saviors of western civilization.
The most famous work Patrick left behind is called “The Breastplate of St Patrick.” Its lyrics capture the nature of his personality as well as the grounds for his ministry:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
Patrick’s legacy is how one person may change the character of a nation, as long as that person is gripped by the power and presence of God.
Thanks to the Weekly Standard for the picture at top.