St. Patrick’s Day may conjure up images of shamrocks, green rivers, and Irish festivals, but the holiday really celebrates a teenager. Specifically, a sixteen-year-old boy from Roman-controlled Scotland who became the greatest missionary of his time—to the country where he had been held in slavery. Patrick’s adventurous and spiritual journey can inspire kids and adults to pursue courage, forgiveness, and grace in their own lives.
Born in 387 AD, Patrick did not embrace faith seriously when he was captured by Irish marauders, but during his six years of slaving as a shepherd in Ireland he discovered a deep faith in Christ. He wrote of his conversion in his memoir, Confessio:
“And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”
Patrick escaped after following instructions from God in a dream to go to the coast where he would find passage on a ship. He returned to his family, but a few years later, he had another vision:
“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ . . . and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.'”
The vision prompted his studies for the priesthood, and he was eventually ordained a bishop. But Ireland was always on his heart. Arriving in 433, Patrick preached and converted all over Ireland for almost forty years. He preached the gospel to many, served the poor, suffered hardship, and wrote of his love for God in Confessio. He died March 17, 461, in Saul, Ireland, where he had built the first Irish church, and is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.
Legends speak of how Patrick drove the snakes off the island (likely a metaphor for driving out Druidism, which was symbolized by snakes). Other stories tell of how he used the green three-leafed clover, a shamrock, to teach the Trinity. Traces of these legends remain in Irish (and Irish-American) culture.
Patrick is also said to have created the design of the Celtic cross on a day when he was preaching close to a pagan standing stone. Such stones were considered sacred to many of potential converts because it was already carved with a circle, a symbol of the sun or moon gods. Patrick is said to have drawn a cross through the circle and then blessed the stone. In thus creating the first Irish Celtic Cross, he displayed his willingness to adapt heathen practices and symbols to Christian beliefs as a way of easing the island’s transition from pagan to Christian.
Patrick’s life was changed during his teen years. Much like Joseph in the Old Testament (Genesis 27–50), he suffered unjustly for many years before redemption came. And, again like Joseph, he turned what was meant for evil into a power for good, returning blessing to those who persecuted him. What characteristics marked his life?
Deep faith—A product of his times, in which visions and dreams played an important part in the spiritual life, Patrick obeyed the call from God to return to the island on which he had been enslaved. He first repaid his slave price to his former captor, then confronted druids and royalty in dramatic fashion. His call was to preach and pray, serve and suffer, all because of the God he loved. He did not always feel worthy or able, but he was determined to obey what he knew to be God’s command for him.
Evangelistic fervor—Patrick’s mission in life was to bring people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. He spent over thirty years preparing himself and almost forty years evangelizing the lost people of Ireland.
“Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon a after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth. . .”
Love for God—Indeed, everything Patrick did—each journey, each task, each sermon, each prayer—was motivated by an all-consuming devotion to Jesus. Christ was his savior (spiritually), his rescuer (literally), his redeemer, his leader.
So as you read about, or take part in, your local St. Paddy’s Day celebrations, take a few moments to reflect on the life of Patrick, Roman by birth, Irish by the grace of God. Wear some green, be grateful for your blessings, and find someone to share Jesus with.