St. Patrick: Voice of Justice and Mercy

The Myths and the Man

I sometimes wonder what the patron saint whom we remember each March 17 would think about the activities by means of which people commemorate his name. What would he make of the revelries, green beer, parades, sales, and the ubiquitous images of shamrocks and leprechauns?

Actually, I have no doubt he would condemn the whole kit-and-caboodle as irreverent and shocking. He who referred to himself as "a sinner, a most uncultivated man, and the least of all the faithful" would object to the very idea of a commemoration. His desire was to be utterly forgotten, to die a martyr and have his unburied body torn apart by beasts and birds, "so that after my death I may leave a legacy to so many thousands of my people—my brothers and sons whom I have baptized in the Lord."

Most people know the name of St. Patrick, but few know anything about him, and what they do know is simply not accurate. He did not, for example, teach the doctrine of the Trinity to the Irish using the shamrock—at least as far as we know. He did not drive the snakes out of Ireland. And he probably didn't best the druids of the high king of Ireland at Tara. For that matter, Patrick wasn't even Irish!

Patrick was born sometime near the end of the fourth century in the west of Britain. His father was a nominal believer, a local public official, and his grandfather was a priest. Patrick was a faithful churchgoer—as most people in Britain were in that day—but he didn't take the faith seriously. When he was sixteen years old he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and carried away to the west coast of Ireland where, for six years, he was forced to tend the sheep of his master.

During those long days and lonely nights the faith sown in Patrick's soul began to germinate, and he discovered a vital relationship with the living God. He testified that he prayed frequently, sometimes a hundred prayers a day. He came to see the hand of God in his captivity and regarded enslavement as just punishment for the frivolous way he had responded to the love of God as a youth.

One evening, as he was praying, he seemed to hear a voice telling him to flee, for his deliverance was waiting. He escaped and, traveling by night across Ireland, arrived at the east coast, where he caught a ship for home.

Before arriving there, however, he was sold again as a slave—probably somewhere in the west of France—only to be delivered once more by a revelation of God. When he finally managed to return home, his parents were so overjoyed that they made him promise never to leave them again.

Before long, however, Patrick received another "vision," of his erstwhile captors calling him—their "holy servant boy"—to return to Ireland and shepherd them. Around A.D. 432, Patrick cashed in his considerable inheritance and headed off to Ireland, against the protests and pleas of family and friends, and without any formal ecclesiastical sanction. There he studied with whatever priests he could find (there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick, although they were few and far between and greatly disheartened), becoming a deacon and a priest. In due course, and after being once passed over, he was made Bishop of Ireland by his superiors in England and accomplished the great work for which he is remembered today, evangelizing the Irish people and laying the foundations of the Irish church.

Patrick evangelized, taught literacy, equipped men and women for ministry, and provided leadership for new churches throughout the Emerald Isle. Although lacking formal education (his enslavement had interrupted that, as he reminds us in his writings) he was deeply pious and solidly orthodox, but with just enough of the pragmatist in him to do whatever was necessary to be able to preach to the lost—like paying bribes to local chieftains for permission to evangelize their people. He was not universally loved. In fact, on yet another occasion he was taken captive and enslaved, only to be delivered through the interventions of faithful friends.

The gospel that St. Patrick preached was firmly linked to larger issues of society and culture. He would not have condoned the separation of faith from life that seems to be so much a part of American Christianity in our day (what Dallas Willard refers to as a "gospel of sin management"). He was bold to preach Christ and the demands of righteousness required of those who follow Him.

On one occasion Patrick was informed that soldiers of a local chieftain named Coroticus, out on a raiding party, had slaughtered several new converts—still in their baptismal gowns—and carried away a large number of other believers as slaves, to be sold to "the vilest, worthless, apostate Picts." Patrick knew Coroticus, and that he professed to be a follower of Christ. He sent messengers to the soldiers requesting that they return all stolen property and release the captives, but his messengers were greeted with laughter and scorn. Their recalcitrance, and Coroticus' seeming compliance in their wickedness, occasioned one of the two extant documents from Patrick's own hand, his "Letter against the Soldiers of Coroticus."

This is not the kind of letter you would want to receive from your pastor. Patrick condemned their treachery, excommunicated the unrepentant soldiers, and threatened them with the fires of hell if they did not repent. For good measure, he requested that his letter be read to Christians throughout the area, warning them against giving aid and comfort to these evil men. He also told them not to receive any gifts or offerings from them. He called Coroticus and his soldiers "savage wolves," a "criminal crew," and the "sons of demons." Yet he held out the hope that, through repentance and restoration, they might yet find forgiveness and renewal with God.

Patrick was a voice of justice in a land where injustice was rampant and human life was often held in very low regard. But his was a voice of mercy as well, as he called sinners, no matter how vile, to turn from their wickedness and find in Jesus the hope of forgiveness and new life. His sixty-year ministry laid the foundations for one of the greatest periods of revival and reformation in the history of Christianity, the Irish Revival of the fifth through the eighth centuries. He is a saint worth remembering, indeed. Yet if we must commemorate Patrick, surely something other than mindless frivolity and self-indulgence would be more appropriate.


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