Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day
Although St. Patrick’s Day appears on our calendars each year, most modern celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day have little to do with the person behind the holiday. Next week many people will wear a little extra green, some will celebrate their Irish heritage, and more than a few will drink a pint or two in honor of St. Patrick. But my guess is that relatively few who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day know much about Patrick himself, and in fact, some of what is commonly “known” about Patrick is actually mistaken.
E. A. Thompson begins his classic study of Patrick by telling of a time when he asked six British university professors about the nationality of Patrick. All six replied that he was “Irish, of course.” Such answers led Thompson to believe that his book on Patrick was sorely needed.
The truth is that Patrick was not Irish. In fact, his first trip to the Emerald Isle was not of his own choosing for he went there as a slave. Patrick (c. 389–c. 461) was actually born to British parents. At the age of 16, he (along with many others) was kidnapped by Irish invaders and forced into slavery. Concerning his captivity he later wrote, “We deserved this, because we had gone far away from God, and did not keep his commandments” (1). As a captive in Ireland, Patrick worked as a shepherd. He had been raised in an upper class home that was nominally Christian, but living as a slave in Ireland, he began to reflect on truths he had learned as a child and was apparently converted. As he put it, “It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognized 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” (2). After about six years Patrick was able to escape and make his way back home to Britain. We know virtually nothing about the years immediately following his return to Britain, but eventually Patrick determined to return to Ireland to spread the gospel among the Irish people. And apparently, his work met with great success. In his Confession, Patrick tells of thousands of brothers and sisters whom he baptized (14). He never returned to his homeland, but rather died among the Irish people he loved. In time, Patrick has become known as the apostle to Ireland and one of that country’s patron saints. And although the story about Patrick using a three-leaf clover to teach the Irish about the Trinity is probably a fable, he was instrumental in spreading Nicene Trinitarianism in a land that had largely degenerated from ancient Christianity into tri-theistic idolatry.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is little more than a celebration of Irish culture—complete with shamrocks, leprechauns, and silly songs. But behind the holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day stands a man who was willing to bring the message of Christianity to the land of his former captors, and that is something worth celebrating.
Key Sources on Patrick:
Philip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography
R. P. C. Hanson, Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career
Michael Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers (ch. 7 – “Saving the Irish: The Mission of Patrick”)
Thomas O’Loughlin, Saint Patrick: The Man and His Works
E. A. Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick?
*This post is a slightly revised version of an article originally published on March 12, 2013.
Thank you for this article. So are we certain he believed in salvation by grace alone through faith alone? You’ll see much about Parick in Catholic sources (for example, http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/saint.aspx?id=1325), and when you mention “Christianity,” that’s often what the word means: Catholic. Are we certain Patrick wasn’t Catholic? I’m just checking because much of what I’ve read up to this point has been less than certain. Thank you.
Thanks for the comment.
Concerning “salvation by grace alone through faith alone,” one would be hard pressed to find that kind of language used prior to the Reformation. In fact, although I believe the NT teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, one can’t actually find that phrase in the Bible, and it probably can’t be found in any of the early church fathers either. So if we’re just looking for those words, we won’t find them in Patrick. On the other hand, he doesn’t say anything that is inconsistent with the idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
“Are we certain Patrick wasn’t Catholic?” It all depends on what one means by the word “Catholic.” Patrick definitely wasn’t Roman Catholic in the modern sense of the term. In his Confession, Patrick never mentions Rome or the pope. He describes his grandfather as a priest without any sense of that being inappropriate. And he appeals to the Scriptures (about two dozen times) as authoritative, but he never points to tradition as a basis of religious authority. The kind of Christianity which Patrick saw established in Ireland was not Roman Catholic in any meaningful sense.
Admittedly, Patrick wasn’t a Baptist nor any other kind of Protestant, but then no one was in the fifth century. Based on what he left behind, Patrick seems to have preached a Christianity which was biblically-based, distinct from Rome, and as far as we can tell “evangelical” (in the broad, anachronistic sense of the term).
Catholic sources have labeled Patrick a saint, but they’ve also labeled Peter, Paul, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and most other early church fathers saints as well. For the most part, Catholic sources are not a reliable guide to determining how “Roman Catholic” a particular individual was (cf. Peter as the first pope).
If you haven’t read the text of Patrick’s Confession, I’d highly recommend it as the best source to read in order to understand Patrick. http://www.confessio.ie/etexts/confessio_english#