“I, Patrick, a sinner… had for father the deacon Calpurnius… I was at that time about 16 years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people… And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that… I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God… And he watched over me before I knew him, …and consoled me as a father would his son. Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.”
So begins the Confession of St. Patrick, 5th-century Apostle to the Irish, patron saint of Ireland. If Patrick were here today, could he teach us anything about engaging the broken world around us—a world that is immoral, violent, and, at least to our prideful eyes, an unlikely candidate for the gospel (as the Celts were considered in his day)?
Although several generations of his family were prominent Romano-British Christians, before his captivity he didn’t “know the true God.” But six years of captivity as a sheep-herding slave was a life-transforming experience for him. His Irish-Celtic captors were a warrior people on both land and sea. When the Romans first encountered them, they said the Celtic warriors seemed demon possessed—the archetypical barbarians who fought like wild beasts. It took Rome hundreds of years to push them to northern Britain and Ireland. Then, as the Roman Empire weakened, Celtic raiding parties erupted again. It was on one of those raids that 16-year-old Patrick was taken captive. For six years, Patrick would be immersed in the language and culture of his captors.
But God was in this: spending most of his time alone with animals, Patrick had abundant time to think… and pray:
“But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day… [I said] up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number. …and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”
The God he had once learned about in the catechism became real and personal to him.
Six years later, Patrick heard a voice in a dream: “You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country,” and a short time later: “Behold, your ship is ready.” Patrick escaped, and 200 miles later found the ship, but the captain refused him passage. As he walked away, he began to pray. Just then, he heard the crew calling: “Come, hurry, we shall take you on in good faith…” Since these were pagan sailors, Patrick “had hopes that they would come to faith in Jesus Christ.”
After three days they reached land, and after 28 days of wandering, they began to starve. Patrick wrote:
“…the next day the captain said to me: ‘Tell me, Christian: you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger…’ I said to them full of confidence: ‘Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for him, that this day he may send you food.’ …so it came to pass: suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them… And from that day they had plenty of food.”
Many years later, Patrick again was taken captive. Again, the Lord delivered him and returned him home to train for the priesthood. Sometime later, he saw a vision of people “crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’ And I was stung intensely in my heart… and thus I awoke.”
When Patrick applied for mission work in Ireland, at first his superiors deemed him unsuitable. But he eventually arrived in an isolated area of Ireland where there were no cities, just farms and scattered people. There were a few Christians there, but the vast majority were steeped in polytheism. Magic and sacrifice, including human sacrifice, were among the religious rites performed by their druid priests. Soon after arriving in Ireland, Patrick succeeded in convincing the Irish King Loigaire to grant religious freedom to the Christians. Not long after, the king’s brother converted. Over the next 15 years of his ministry, much of Ireland was converted, with some 200 churches planted. He writes that he “baptized thousands of people.”
How might Patrick be an example for us today in reaching a society that is increasingly postmodern, post-Christian, and looking in all the wrong places for a home for their soul?
Having become a man of prayer, grounded in the Word of God, Patrick conducted his ministry fearlessly among his former captors, gaining their respect. Ministering in a group-oriented culture, he formed and traveled with evangelistic teams, working for conversions of chieftains and tribes. Patrick offered no cultural benefits to the Irish except deliverance from murder, slavery and the tyrannical fear of a horrifying pantheon. He fully relied on the power of the Word of God and the Name of Jesus. He came to love and serve the Irish people in humble confidence, making use of anything good and admirable in the culture. He “became Irish” and taught the Scriptures in familiar terms that connected with their culture. Much of what has been written about Patrick is questionable, but there do seem to have been dramatic encounters between him and the druid magicians through which the Name of Jesus proved the superior power. For a people who lived in paralyzing fear of their horrible gods, this was good news—they could be delivered!
The result of Patrick’s evangelistic church planting work is of historical significance also, as the Celtic monasteries served as mission compounds and centers of great learning, supplying the west with evangelists and scholars for centuries to come. These monasteries served as discipling communities where anyone could come and belong as they learned the gospel. Here, monks copied volumes from the libraries of Europe (that were at that time being burned by barbarian hordes), thus preserving the accumulated knowledge of western civilization from destruction. Many of them beautifully decorated, these Celtic “illuminated manuscripts” are today cherished works of art.
The spiritual descendants of Patrick launched a missionary movement that spread the gospel across Europe for hundreds of years in the longest sustained missionary movement the world has ever known. It was a monastery-centered Church, with the governance of the monasteries patterned after the Irish chieftains. These were mission centers that in turn produced some of Europe’s best scholars and missionaries who played a key role not only in the re-education of all of Europe, but its re-evangelization as well. Let us remember this heritage and thank God the next time we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen Ph.D. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as professor of Mission and Evangelism at Lutheran Brethren Seminary.