Today is St Patrick’s Day, the date when the fifth-century missionary to Ireland is supposed to have died. Depending on your preferred theory, he might have come from England, Wales or even Scotland. No matter. Now the date has become a celebration of Irishness replete with parades, green clothes, ginger beards and copious amounts of alcohol.
But what about the man himself?
Semi-mythical accounts composed centuries after his death tell of showdowns with druids, smashing pagan statues in iconoclastic fervour, calling down curses upon kings and kingdoms and, of course, banishing snakes. All the embellishments of a Christian superhero, but with no basis in documents from the time of Patrick. Even the idea that he used the shamrock to teach about the Trinity seems to be a fiction.
Then there is the poem (or hymn) known as Patrick’s Breastplate, which is sometimes selectively quoted by contemporary Christians (‘Christ with me, Christ before me’ etc.). In its entirety, it reads as a blend of pagan mysticism and pseudo-Christian superstition. I’m glad to say there’s little evidence that it had anything to do with the real Patrick.
Yet there was a real Patrick. The landscape of my native Northern Ireland is littered with supposed locations from his life. His purported grave is in County Down, in the grounds of Downpatrick Cathedral, with the site of his supposed first church nearby in Saul. Then there is Armagh, where he is said to have built the first large church in Ireland, causing it to become the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland as not one but two ‘St Patrick’s’ Cathedrals testify. Finally, Slemish in County Antrim is the lonely mountain where he allegedly herded sheep as a slave in his teenage years. All these locations are steeped in tradition, behind which it is hard to establish concrete facts.
So, what can we know of the real Patrick?
Well, he was a pioneering missionary to Ireland. Not the first, but certainly a significant influence in the Christianising of this island. In his autobiographical Confession, he writes of baptising many converts and appointing many ministers and virgins to continue gospel work in Ireland. This is the Patrick I have known and have long admired. A passionate servant of the gospel and a progenitor of the deeply spiritual missionary movement known as Celtic Christianity.
That was the Patrick I thought I knew. Until I read his own words in full.
There, in the words of the Confession, I came to know the real Patrick. Not a superhero whose life was a tale of unalloyed victories. Yes, the Confession recounts his successes as well as giving his testimony. The things I thought I knew are there. Abduction as a boy into slavery in Ireland. Escape and return to his family. Visions of a man calling him back to Ireland as a missionary. Conversions and baptisms. Appointing other workers.
So much is true. But I discovered something else. That he was a man like me. A rounded figure who had challenges and struggles in ministry. His Confession opens with these words:
*My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.
This was Patrick’s core identity. A sinner and a believer. The Confession reveals both truths. It is saturated with biblical quotations and inferences. It expresses his confidence in the gospel, but it also exposes his challenges in gospel ministry. Three in particular. I am not referring to the opposition he faced in Ireland. That he seems to have expected as inevitable, although his only other surviving writing, an open letter to soldiers who had slaughtered some recent converts, expresses his sorrow and anger at opposition from pagans.
The three challenges that stand out are much more personal and intense than that.
The first challenge was his own sense of inadequacy. He especially refers to his lack of education, which some had said made him unsuited to ministry. He writes:
*There were many who forbade this mission. They even told stories among themselves behind my back, and they said: “Why does he put himself in danger among hostile people who do not know God?” It was not that they were malicious – they just did not understand, as I myself can testify, since I was just an unlearned country person.
Patrick explains that he was slow to recognise God’s calling to Ireland. His testimony is told in tones of awe that God had both rescued him from sin –
*I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.
– and given him a fruitful ministry –
*I see that already in this present age the Lord has given me a greatness more than could be expected. I was not worthy of this.
Patrick overcame his sense of inadequacy to follow his Saviour’s leading to Ireland, despite the insults and persecutions he would face there. He describes his willingness to die for Christ’s name, and desire to stay in Ireland until his death. The Confession, written in his old age, bears the marks of a life of service saturated in the Scriptures. A life well spent because his identity was in Christ: a sinner and a believer.
The second challenge was the most intense of all. Patrick did not only face opposition from pagans. He was attacked from within the Church. He recounts an incident when some of his seniors brought an accusation against him, claiming that he was unsuitable to be a bishop because of a teenage sin. The effect on Patrick was intense. He writes:
*This hit me very hard, so much so that it seemed I was about to fall, both here and in eternity.
The pain was intensified by the fact that his accusers had heard about the long-past sin from a trusted confidante to whom he had confessed it thirty years earlier. That man had assured him of God’s forgiveness and that it was not a disqualifying sin. But he broke confidence and told others who were looking for ammunition against Patrick. It isn’t clear what the sin was, but my guess is it might have been sexual in nature.
Later in the Confession, Patrick alludes to other accusations against him – that he received gifts in return for ministry, which may have been his true motivation for returning to Ireland. Far from profiting from his mission, Patrick insists that he expended large sums in gifts to Irish kings and judges to open the way for the gospel whilst refusing all gifts, even when it was offensive to those who offered them, so that he might be above reproach.
Reading the Confession with modern eyes, I must confess I had my doubts. What if Patrick was actually another fraud like the ones we hear of periodically? Men who conceal sins of self-indulgence behind a veneer of outward success. I certainly hope not! But there are also details in the Confession that make me think Patrick was telling the truth. The sin that his friend betrayed confidence over was committed before Patrick was in ministry or even converted. And his policy concerning gifts seems to be a model of wise boundaries to protect the reputation of the gospel. And then there is Patrick’s response, which reflects trust in God and concern for others above his own reputation:
*But the Lord in his kindness spared the converts and the strangers for the sake of his name, and strongly supported me when I was so badly treated. I did not slip into sin and disgrace. I pray that God not hold this sin against them.
The other detail that leads me to believe Patrick is his candour about the third challenge he faced. We might expect someone who had faced false accusations to be reluctant to admit to temptation for fear it would play to his detractors’ advantage.
But Patrick was open about his struggles with intense temptation. He writes:
*I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law.
This is a man who knows his weakness and is not so proud as to think he was beyond risk of falling. He was no superhero. He had feet of clay, just like every servant of Christ.
Here then are the three challenges Patrick faced in service of God: self-doubt and misunderstandings, betrayal and opposition, and daily temptation to sin. Yet, by God’s grace, he ran the race and left a legacy in the converts he baptised, the ministers he trained and, of course, the few words he wrote.
These three challenges are part and parcel of ministry. I find it heartening to know when I face these same three challenges that I am not alone.
Patrick inspires me to think about my values and what measures I need to take in order to continue on the path of faithfulness. In his policy around money and his practice of confession – albeit that he was betrayed by a confessor – he reminds us of the necessity for clear and consistent boundaries in ministry. In his way of writing, he models dependence on God through immersion in the Scriptures and regularly renewed joy in God’s salvation and calling. And he inspires us to be sure that our legacy is less about our own achievements – he wrote little – and more about the people we develop to carry the baton after us. He appointed many servants of God who would sustain and nurture the new indigenous Irish church in its gospel mission.
Above all, Patrick’s faithfulness despite his sense of unworthiness reminds us that God can use the insignificant and weak. People like you and me. Indeed, such are always the people God uses, for there is no other kind.
I am glad I have come to know the real Patrick.
From now on, I think St Patrick’s Day will be for me less a time for celebration and more an opportunity for reflection. A time to offer back to God my hopes and fears. A time to pray as Patrick did:
*I pray that God give me perseverance, and that he grant me to bear faithful witness to him right up to my passing from this life, for the sake of my God. […]
I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.
*Quotations in this post are from the modern translation of Patrick’s Confession by Pádraig McCarthy, which can be read online and purchased in print from www.confessio.ie.