Most religious celebrations and feast days for saints of the church garner little attention outside ecclesiastical circles. St. Patrick’s Day is a notable exception, especially throughout America. Across the country parades and festivities are held to commemorate all things Irish. It’s a delightful holiday in many ways, with ubiquitous shamrocks and obligatory green clothing or accessories and Shamrock shakes galore. Because the church traditionally lifts the Lenten restrictions on alcohol for this celebration, the revelry of St. Patrick’s Day is often marked with more than a little inebriation. Regardless of the specific form of the celebration, rarely invoked are the particulars of the man for whom the day is named. Just who is this Patrick, patron saint of Ireland? Why commemorate his life at all?
The most obvious and the official answer is that we celebrate Patrick’s life because of the key role he played in turning the Irish away from paganism and toward Christianity. This was no mean feat. In Philip Freeman’s helpful biography of Patrick, he tells of the entrenched cultural powers—kings, druids, slaveholders—that Patrick would need to engage to carry out his sixth century mission’s work. The political structures, religious customs, and social practices of Ireland at the start of Patrick’s ministry were all overtly and fiercely anti-Christian. Patrick’s navigation of those dynamics is certainly noteworthy; his overwhelming success in subverting them is nothing short of miraculous. Attempts to capture the astonishing outcomes of Patrick’s work have elevated the man himself to something of a spiritual superhero, complete with his own folklore and fantastical stories.
Sensationalistic tales such as his banishment of snakes from the island and his staff that took root and grew into a tree give the saint an air of mystery and the heroic. The rapidity and breadth of Christianity’s growth across the island is difficult to explain without appeal to the supernatural, and these fabricated stories were probably intended to capture something of the divine power that clearly animated and directed his missions work. But the legends might just as easily distract us from understanding Patrick as the model for Christian faithfulness he provides. True, Patrick was instrumental in radically transforming the landscape of a cruel and dehumanizing culture. Yes, he is rightly recognized as a luminary of the Christian faith. But his life also serves as an example and encouragement for all Christians seeking to live out their faith. What we find in Patrick’s own words testify that the source of this work is the life of Christ available to all Christians. The inspiration of Patrick’s life is not to be found in its outsized results but in its steady faithfulness.
To be sure, the circumstances of Patrick’s life were extraordinary. He was born in fifth-century Britain, the privileged son of a Roman official. During his teenage years, he was kidnapped by Irish mercenaries and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years. After an escape from captivity prompted by an angelic vision, he returned home and devoted himself to the study of scriptures and preparation for ministry of some kind. During his years as a slave, he had become deeply aware of God’s call on his life and of his need for a savior. He later attributed his spiritual growth in this time to his terrible conditions: only when all was stripped away did he realize his complete dependence on God. His physical slavery counterintuitively brought him spiritual freedom. This transformational experience affected him so deeply that when he felt led to return to Ireland, the land and people responsible for his greatest torment, he abandoned himself wholly to that calling. Not only did he return to share the life-giving gospel message with the hardened and violent people of Ireland; he came to love them, even risking his life and reputation for their sake.
This love motivated his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, a British tribal ruler. This letter jeopardized Patrick’s standing in the church and cost him no small amount of anxiety and energy; nevertheless, his commitment to the Irish people and to the gospel overrode those personal concerns. He wrote his note in response to a raid into Ireland by British soldiers who killed and kidnapped a group of Patrick’s newly baptized converts on their way home from the baptism. Sending this missive put Patrick in danger because it violated long-standing church protocol that leaders should not meddle in the congregations of other church leaders. And Patrick’s letter did more than meddle. It condemned not only the actions of the soldiers but the soldiers themselves, appealing to scripture to justify the judgments he rendered.
Patrick’s righteous indignation and rage at the soldiers’ actions permeate the letter, but undergirding that wrath is a devotion to God and commitment to his people. Britons thought very little of the Irish, seeing them as less than human and suited only for slavery. Patrick’s writing proclaims again and again that God cares for them. Patrick upends the British assumptions by describing the Irish as his brothers and sisters, and even more by extending that relationship to the soldiers themselves, who publically pronounced themselves Christian. Patrick puts that presumption to the test by challenging them to release those they had enslaved. He also called on other fellow Christians to cut off fellowship with them until they demonstrated their faith through their actions.
For Patrick, faith and works go hand in hand. This is demonstrated by his Confession, a follow-up to his earlier epistle that appears to be a response to challenges to his leadership that stemmed from his rebuke of Coroticus. In this recount of his testimony, what emerges is a picture of a man who submitted himself fully to God’s call on his life. What is most remarkable about this account is the way it depicts how receiving God’s love leads to serving others. The mercy God showed Patrick in his early years as a slave stirred in him gratitude and a desire to share that blessing with others. The love he offered the Irish, despite their responsibility for his kidnapping and enslavement, was an overflow of the love God bestowed on him.
Despite the time and space that divide us, the Patrick of these letters has much to teach us. He displayed remarkable courage in confronting wrongdoing, but not of his own strength. Forged in the fire of oppression was his abiding conviction about God’s love and its radical and often counterintuitive demands. The debasement of slavery and dehumanization he’d endured had stripped away all pretenses of his superiority, making him acutely aware of his desperate need for God for power and productiveness, for trust and tenacity. God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.
Near the end of his letter, Patrick wrote these poignant words we would do well to take to heart:
“My final prayer is that all of you who believe in God and respect him—whoever you may be who read this letter that Patrick the unlearned sinner wrote from Ireland—that none of you will ever say that I in my ignorance did anything for God. You must understand—because it is the truth—that it was all the gift of God.”
Image: "Detail of St Patrick with a shamrock in a stained glass window at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago." by T. Zajdowicz. CC License.