“I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful and despised in the eyes of many.”Saint Patrick – Confessions
Saint Patrick (389-461) was not from Ireland but a native of Britain and the son of a Roman citizen. Although raised a Christian, Patrick was not especially religious. When he was 16 years old, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. For six years, Patrick worked as a shepherd in Ireland. During this time, he underwent a spiritual conversion.
By 407 prompted by God, Patrick made his escape from servitude. He traveled to the southeastern coast of Ireland and managed to convince a boat captain to allow him to accompany them away from Ireland. Tradition has it that Patrick’s path then led him to the continent of Europe where he spent time wandering from holy site to site coming to know God and scripture. Eventually, Patrick found his way back home, reuniting with his family, a very different person than who he once was.
Patrick was convinced that God had called him to spread the gospel message of Christianity to his former oppressors, the Irish who were pagan. Thus, he studied to be a priest. His studies were very basic since Patrick entered the priesthood so late in life. But nevertheless, he had a deep familiarity and understanding of the Bible. Some historians have suggested that Patrick may have spent some time in Gaul with a famous scholar of the early Middle Ages named Germanus of Auxerre during his wandering time. Sometime after 431, Patrick was appointed to be bishop of Ireland, a position that he had wanted for some time since he believed that God tasked him to return to the Irish. Thus Patrick returned to Ireland, risking his life as an escaped slave to Ireland to the dismay of his family. Once in Ireland, Patrick fervently preached and established small churches and monasteries across the small island, uniting Christian tradition with elements of Celtic culture. To many, Patrick personified the Irish and, through his conservative and straightforward style, Patrick won the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland.
Many accounts of Patrick’s life are embellished with wild stories and legends, so there are many unanswered questions about his life. In general, most historians have used Patrick’s spiritual missals, Confession and Letter to Soldiers of Coroticus admonishing Irish soldiers and chieftain for being involved in the slave trade to piece together details of his life. Regardless of the scarcity of primary sources, Patrick is one of the most popular saints in the world and a symbol of Ireland.
After Patrick’s death, Christianity continued to spread and root itself deep in Irish culture. Different than other European expressions of Christianity, which included large churches and cathedrals centers, Ireland relied on monasteries to assume the functions of the cathedrals since the island lacked large urban centers. Eventually, Irish monks were even so bold as to reach out to the rest of Europe with missionaries including two other famous Irish saints, Saint Columba (521-97) and Saint Columbanus (540-615)
What can we learn from Saint Patrick?
- Be humble. Saint Patrick recognized the enormity of his mission while understanding the small part of the task that was his.
- Be grateful. Saint Patrick experienced some trying times in servitude and when returning to Ireland, but in all things, he was grateful.
- Know your mission. Saint Patrick was willing to be patient, playing the long game in completing his mission.