When most people in our country think of St. Patrick’s Day, they think of wearing green, shamrocks, and leprechauns with pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. If you ask someone who St. Patrick really was, you will probably get answers that mention an old Irish saint chasing the snakes away from the “Emerald Isle.” The problem is none of this is true! The only vestiges of truth that remain popularly known are these: a beloved man named Patricius (we’ll call him by his better-known name, Patrick) died on March 17th in Ireland sometime between 465 and 493 A.D. (the year is disputed). But there is much more. Who is the real Patrick?
Imagine the horror of seeing your hometown destroyed and being taken captive by cruel raiders and sold as a slave to a foreign land. This is precisely what happened to 16-year-old Patrick, the son of a British Roman civil magistrate in west Britain around 430 AD.
In the fall 1998 edition of Christian History magazine, Mary Cagney describes his six-years of slavery as follows:
Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose opponents' heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master's pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger and thirst. Worst of all, he was isolated from other human beings for months at a time. Early missionaries to Britain had left a legacy of Christianity that young Patrick was exposed to and took with him into captivity. He had been a nominal Christian to this point; he now turned to the Christian God of his fathers for comfort.
God had gotten this teenager’s attention. According to David L. Brown, Ph.D. in his 1999 article, The Real Patrick: Missionary to Ireland,
Patrick had ignored the Lord up to this point in his life. But things were different now, very different. He began to remember some things that his preacher grandfather had told him. The despair of slavery and the solitude of his occupation compelled him to remember his Christian upbringing and his need of the Lord. He writes in his confession, "I was about sixteen but did not know the true God, but in a strange land, the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and I was converted." Patrick came to know Christ as his personal Savior and was freed from his slavery to sin. Patrick grew in the Lord. "His devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ brought upon him a nickname, ‘Holy-Boy" from his fellow slaves. Through the years, he learned to pray whether he was working or resting." It is evident by his own testimony he learned to practice 1 Thessalonians 5:17 which says, Pray without ceasing. He says this in his Confession: "After I came to Ireland, every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed. The Love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; I used to get up and pray before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me…because the spirit within me was then fervent."
Later, Patrick even told the Lord that he would give his life to ministry if he ever regained his freedom. After serving his godless master faithfully, Patrick sensed that the time to make a break had come. He escaped and traveled 200 miles on foot over treacherous, unknown territory to the coast, and boarded a ship of traders headed for Gaul (modern France). When the Celtic mariners arrived, they were disappointed to only find devastation. Goths or Vandals had so decimated the land that no food or buyers of their goods were to be found in the once vibrant area. Here Patrick got his first recorded opportunity to share his newly revived faith with someone. Cagney, quoting Patrick’s autobiography, reports the conversation went something like this:
What have you to say for yourself, Christian?" the ship's captain taunted. "You boast that your God is all powerful. We're starving to death, and we may not survive to see another soul."
Patrick answered confidently. "Nothing is impossible to God. Turn to him and he will send us food for our journey."
At that moment, a herd of pigs appeared, "seeming to block our path." Though Patrick instantly became "well regarded in their eyes," his companions offered their new-found food in sacrifice to their pagan gods.
Patrick did not partake.
Historians believe that after training for ministry for a time in the South of France, Patrick headed home where he found his family and resumed his life. But God kept bringing the Irish—those miserable, superstitious, pagan Celts—to Patrick’s mind. Once Patrick even had a dream of a man from Ireland calling and pleading, “Help us!” Patrick wrote, “I was deeply moved in heart,” and he made the decision to leave his beloved Britain for Ireland, but this time he was taken captive by God’s desire for the lost. "I dwell among gentiles," he wrote, "in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshipers of idols, and of unclean things."
Patrick explained that the false gods that the people of Ireland worshipped and feared were actually evil demons, and he beckoned them to place their faith in Christ. Things began slowly but Patrick was determined. He faced opposition on many fronts, and his life was frequently in danger. Cagney writes,
Predictably, Patrick faced the most opposition from the druids, who practiced magic, were skilled in secular learning (especially law and history) and advised Irish kings. Biographies of the saint are replete with stories of druids who "wished to kill holy Patrick."
"Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity," Patrick wrote, "but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere."
Indeed, Patrick almost delighted in taking risks for the gospel. "I must take this decision disregarding risks involved and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God's name boldly in every place, so that even after my death, a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children."
Eventually God used Patrick to bring a king, Loiguire, to faith in Christ who intended to kill the young missionary. The different accounts of this confrontation are rife with legend, so much so that it is difficult to ascertain fact from fiction. Nonetheless the King was dramatically converted, and Patrick made it a central part of his strategy to convert the one hundred or so kings first so that their subjects would hopefully follow. This tactic proved to be extremely effective.
It is understandable that slavery was an evil against which Patrick would battle tirelessly. According to Cagney,
[Patrick] was, in fact, the first Christian to speak out strongly against the practice. Scholars agree he is the genuine author of a letter excommunicating a British tyrant, Coroticus, who had carried off some of Patrick's converts into slavery.
"Ravenous wolves have gulped down the Lord's own flock which was flourishing in Ireland," he wrote, "and the whole church cries out and laments for its sons and daughters." He called Coroticus's deed "wicked, so horrible, so unutterable," and told him to repent and to free the converts.
It remains unknown if he was successful in freeing Coroticus's slaves, but within his lifetime (or shortly thereafter), Patrick ended the entire Irish slave trade.
Even though he was not considered a man of great learning, Patrick is also known for his insistence on sound biblical doctrine. Dr. Neil Chadwick writes,
Because of his deep faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Patrick made this doctrine a center piece of his instruction. To help explain the mystery of the ‘Trinity’ he used the simple three-leaf shamrock to illustrate the three persons in one God.
Most historians agree that he taught a “grace alone through faith alone” salvation, unlike that which was developing in the Roman Christianity of the European continent at that time.
Patrick boldly proclaimed Christ in Ireland for about 30 years. And talk about impact! Roy D. Warren, Jr. in his book, Patrick of Ireland: The Untold Story wrote, "he planted over 200 churches and had over 100,000 truly saved converts." Patrick writes in his autobiography,
I am greatly a debtor to God, who has bestowed his grace so largely upon me, that multitudes were born again to God through me…Hence, the Irish, who had never had the knowledge of God and worshipped only idols and unclean things, have lately become the people of the Lord, and are called the sons of God.
Patrick loved the Lord and constantly trained new Believers to follow the Great Commission. In addition to planting churches, he built scores of monasteries, schools, orphanages, and other institutions for instructing people in the faith, and established hundreds of pastors and leaders. Many of these institutions still exist.
We should learn from the cultural impact that God instrumented through Patrick. Brown writes, “While the Roman Empire and occupied lands were going from peace to chaos, the land of Ireland was going from chaos to peace under the ministry of Patrick.”
So on this St. Patrick’s Day, tell someone about the real Patrick. And consider this: God wants to raise up some Patricks today. He is looking for those who are willing to lay aside the comforts of this life to find more contentment in being greatly used by God.