If taken prisoner by pirates and enslaved for six years as a teenager in a foreign land, most would curse their captors and pursue a better life upon their homecoming. Patrick, in an extraordinary turn of divine providence, chose to go back as a missionary to his barbarian slavers. His sacrificial service was eventually commemorated by a feast on March 17,1 which we celebrate to this day. The story of St. Patrick is one of faith, courage, and worship of the Triune God—not of shamrocks, leprechauns, and drinking parties. St. Patrick’s Day belongs to the church.
Early Life and Captivity
Patrick (nicknamed “Paddy”) was born in the Roman province of Britain around 389 AD,2 not long after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and Theodosius I declared it the official religion of the Roman Empire (380 AD). In his autobiographical open letter, Confession (Latin, Confessio), Patrick mentions his religious upbringing:
My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time.
Little is known about Patrick’s early life except that he was captured by raiders from Ireland, one of several barbarian lands that threatened the Roman empire. Patrick goes on to tell about his capture, and how God used it to humble his juvenile pride:
At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved. The Lord brought his strong anger upon us, and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth. It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was.
Paddy was sold to “a cruel warrior chief whose opponents’ heads sat atop sharp poles.” In Slemish, a small mountain in Northern Ireland, he herded sheep or pigs for the next six years.
Conversion and Homegoing
What the Irish raiders meant for evil, God meant for good (Gen. 50:20). As in the life of Joseph, God’s providence was evident in young Patrick’s trials, leading him to repentance. During his years as a shepherd, God’s Spirit “burned” upon his heart:
After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.
On the hillsides of a heathen land where druids (Celtic priests) led in the worship of the sun, moon, wind, and other elements, Patrick was met by the true and living God. In a land where animals and even humans were sacrificed to pagan gods, Patrick began to see himself as sinful in the sight of the Triune God. He later recalled God’s great mercy towards him:
It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognised my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance. He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil. He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son.
Patrick likened himself to “a stone lying in deep mud” before “he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.”
God had accomplished his plan for this season in Patrick’s life. A voice came to him in his sleep: “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country.” Again, “Look – your ship is ready.” Patrick received this as a divine sign and fled from his captors over two-hundred miles to the coast. There, he found a ship that was preparing to set sail. The seeds were sown for Patrick’s later mission: “They were pagans, and I hoped they might come to faith in Jesus Christ.”
Call and Return to Ireland
After several more difficult years, Patrick was finally reunited with his parents. They urged him to stay in Britain forever, but God had other plans. Another vision came to him in the night: the Irish people “called out as it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’” It was Patrick’s Macedonian call.
Patrick prepared for ministry and was ordained as a deacon, but his superiors considered him unfit to be a missionary because of sins that were dredged up from his teenage years before his conversion. However, when another missionary died, the door was opened. Patrick was determined to go despite persecution. He later reflected:
[God] resisted them all so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel. I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here. I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me.
In 432, Patrick landed back on Irish soil, this time by choice. His sole motivation was to preach the gospel to the lost: “I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises.” Patrick cited the Great Commission, considering it his sacred duty to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, which is what Ireland was seen to be in his day. After all, God’s grace had transformed him as a youth in the same pagan land:
That is why I cannot be silent — nor would it be good to do so — about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.
Needless to say, the Irish pagans were not as eager about Patrick’s mission. Several druids sought to kill him, and Patrick later remembered twelve near-death experiences. Despite the challenge, Patrick persisted in the work. He thought of returning to Britain, but feared the Lord Jesus more than the pagan priests:
I am bound in the Spirit, who assures me that if I were to do this, I would be held guilty. And I fear, also, to lose the work which I began — not so much I as Christ the Lord, who told me to come here to be with these people for the rest of my life.
Evangelism and Church Planting
In time, Patrick began to win the hearts and the minds of the people. Ruth A. Tucker summarizes Patrick’s strategy for reaching the pagans:
Patrick’s methods of evangelism in some ways were similar to those of so many missionaries before and after him. His first step in evangelizing a new area was to win the political leader in hopes that his subjects would fall in behind him, and he was not averse to lavishing gifts on these local rulers. Unlike so many of the Roman Catholic missionaries, however, Patrick and the Celtic missionaries who followed him placed great emphasis on spiritual growth. Converts were given intensive training in the Scriptures and were encouraged to become involved in the ministry themselves.
Despite some questionable methods, Patrick was an honest minister: “God knows that I have not been devious with even one of them, nor do I think of doing so, for the sake of God and his church.” He often returned gifts when they were given to him, and did not ask for money even to buy shoes. Rather, Patrick gave all that he might win some:
I spend myself for you, so that you may have me for yours. I have travelled everywhere among you for your own sake, in many dangers, and even to the furthest parts where nobody lived beyond, and where nobody ever went to baptise and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfilment. It is only by God’s gift that I diligently and most willingly did all of this for your good.
After convincing the Irish king to extend more tolerance to Christians, and converting the king’s brother to the faith, Patrick was able to secure funds for a church and expand his outreach. In just fifteen years, much of Ireland was evangelized.
It is during this time that Patrick likely wrote the hymn which is commonly attributed to him.3 Also known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,”4 the hymn is a prayer for protection “against the snares of demons, against the temptations of vices, against the lusts of nature, against every man who meditates injury to me.” In the eighth and ninth stanzas, now famous, Patrick looks to Christ as his all in all:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.5
While some estimate that Patrick planted 200 churches and baptized 100,000 converts, Schaff thought that the number of churches alone may have ranged from 365 to 700. He also notes that Patrick is said to have converted as many as 3,000 priests and “all the Irish chieftains and bards.” Patrick was faithful to honor God for his success: “I am greatly in debt to God. He gave me such great grace, that through me, many people should be born again in God and brought to full life.” The results were inexplicable apart from divine grace:
How has this happened in Ireland? 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!
Patrick proved his critics wrong, but refused to boast in his success:
There were many who forbade this mission. They even told stories among themselves behind my back, and the said: “Why does he put himself in danger among hostile people who do not know God?” It was not that they were malicious – they just did not understand, as I myself can testify, since I was just an unlearned country person.
As an old man, Patrick told the story of his missionary work in his Confession, which ends with these humble words:
I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.
All For the Love of God
While Patrick’s success story is sometimes shrouded by myth and mystery,6 his selfless gospel labors are undisputed. Notably, Patrick was one of the earliest Christian opponents of slavery and his influence was felt for generations to come as “hundreds of Celtic monks, in emulation of Patrick, left their homeland to spread the gospel to Scotland, England, and continental Europe.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, we honor Patrick’s missionary legacy. The “true Apostle of Ireland,” in the words of Philip Schaff, “has impressed his memory in indelible characters upon the Irish race at home and abroad.” Let us pray that we all may share his selfless resolve to win the lost for God’s glory and man’s eternal good:
If I have ever imitated anything good for the sake of my God whom I love, I ask that he grant me to be able to shed my blood with these converts and captives – even were I to lack a grave for burial, or my dead body were to be miserably torn apart limb from limb by dogs or wild beasts, or were the birds of heaven to devour it. I declare with certainty that if this were to happen, I would have gained both my soul and my body. There is no doubt whatever that we will rise on the appointed day in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our redeemer. We shall be like children of the living God and co-heirs of Christ and to be fashioned in his image, since it is from him and through him and in him that we are to reign.
This article was originally published on March 17, 2020. Image credit: Lawrence OP.
- Believed to be the day of his death.
- The exact date of his birth is unknown. Some favor a date as early as 373.
- Philip Schaff reports that “Patrick is said to have written [the hymn] when he was about to convert the chief monarch of the island (Laoghaire or Loegaire).”
- Stephen Nichols explains, “The word breastplate is a translation of the Latin word lorica, a prayer, especially for protection. These prayers would be written out and at times placed on shields of soldiers and knights as they went out to battle. St. Patrick’s Lorica points beyond himself and his adventurous life.”
- A more accurate translation of the original hymn, “S. Patricii Canticum Scotticum,” is available in Schaff, IV.2.14.
- For example, many paintings depict Patrick driving all of the snakes from Ireland, a myth which is easily disproved.