Embracing St Patrick & His Message
“I live for my God, to teach these peoples, even if I am despised by some”
As St. Patrick Day is celebrated on 17th March both across Ireland and indeed the world, if Patrick himself is remembered, he is typically a cheerful man in green robes and a mitre. He will likely hold a staff in one hand and a bunch of shamrock in the other and receive a hero's welcome as he leads a St Patrick's Day parade in a local Irish town.
But how well does this match with the real Patrick who lived in Ireland in the 4th or 5th century?
All we know about Patrick is what he wrote in two documents, the most famous being his Confession, which is a moving testimony of his conversion, his fleeing from slavery in Ireland back to Britain, and his return to Ireland “that through me, many people should be born again in God and brought to full life” (C38).
However, Patrick's less well known second writing reveals another side to this man's testimony – one of persecution and sacrifice. In “Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus”, Patrick pleads with soldiers of a Roman general Coroticus to release prisoners they had recently captured and plundered, and to repent of killing others, all of whom were converts to the new faith, Christianity. How aware are we that Ireland was once a place of out-right persecution, “blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians” (L2)? As shocking as this is, Patrick's response is perhaps more so: “I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel, even in persecutions which are no small matter, to the very ends of the earth” (L6). He felt a deep responsibility and calling to preach the gospel, despite persecution, even if it meant going to Ireland, which at that time was assumed to be the ends of the earth.
Such a mission required extreme sacrifice and in defending his work, Patrick outlines some of the sacrifices he made. The people Patrick went to help in Ireland were the same people “who at one time took me captive and slaughtered the men and women servants in my father's home” (L10). He was born into a reasonably well-off family (son of a decurion, an officer in the Roman army), yet “I sold out my noble state for the sake of others – and I am not ashamed of that, nor do I repent of it” (L10).
Why would a son of a noble family voluntarily return to a land where “never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things”? (C41)
Why was Patrick willing to become a slave of a foreign people? His answer is simple:
“Now, in Christ, I am a slave of a foreign people, for the sake of the indescribable glory of eternal life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (L10)
He goes on:
“I do not seek what is mine: it is not my own grace, but God who put this concern in my heart, that I would be one of the hunters or fishers whom God at one time foretold would be here in the final days” (L11)
More stunningly, why would Patrick rejoice within himself in the midst of this tragedy? Only because he knew that his mission was of eternal significance, that those believers who had lost their lives had a greater treasure to look forward to:
“I have not worked for nothing; my wanderings have not been in vain. This unspeakably horrifying crime has been carried out. But, thanks to God, you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. I see you clearly: you have begun your journey to where there is no night, nor sorrow, nor death any more.” (L17)
So is it a total misrepresentation to have a jovial Patrick in a parade on a cold Spring morning in a small Irish town in 2019? Yes and no! Yes, Patrick was not cheered by all the people – rather “they watch me with malice. What am I to do, Lord? I am greatly despised”. Many people were hostile to His message of salvation through Jesus. But no, it's not wrong to depict a joyful Patrick – he had a deeper joy because of the hope of eternal life for himself and for those who through his ministry were “born again in God and brought to full life” (C38).
As we celebrate Patrick, let us pray for God to give us a fraction of his zeal and commitment to bring the gospel to the people of Ireland, whether it is by personal witness, or by financial or prayerful support of others who seek to be like Patrick in their corner of the island. By God's grace, may we be willing to be despised, knowing the immeasurable, eternal value of our message.
Patrick's Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus contains a testimony of persecution and sacrifice, alongside a call to repentance and the hope of glory through Jesus Christ. He ends: “I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it in no way be withdrawn or hidden from any person.” (L 21)
May we be like Patrick wherever God has called us to serve Him today, by His grace.
Quotations from Patrick's Confession are abbreviated “C” and the paragraph number, while quotations from the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus as abbreviated “L” and the paragraph number. Quotations from Patrick's Confessio (Confession) and Epistola (Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus) are from a translation from Latin by Pádraig MacCarthy. The full texts can be found at www.confessio.ie