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  • Writer's pictureBrian Fuller

Saint Patrick was No Saint-The Real Patrick

Saint Patrick was no saint, at least not officially. Even though he is almost universally referred to as “Saint Patrick,” he was never officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, there was no official Roman Catholic Church in the fourth and fifth centuries during Patrick’s life. That’s just one ecclesiastical example of the accretions of history, folklore and urban legend that surround Patrick.

Just as a test, what comes to mind when you think of “Saint Patrick’s Day?” NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Green Beer? Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland? Shamrocks being used to teach the doctrine of the Trinity? Leprechauns? Patrick’s walking pole becoming a living tree? The color green everywhere? There are all sorts of Saint Patrick legends. How do we distinguish between the truth and make-believe about a person who lived over 1500 years ago? Nearly the only way to separate fact from fiction is to reconstruct Patrick’s story from any extent documents. There are two such manuscripts that are available- His Confession and his Epistle to Coroticus. The legend version of Patrick pales with the real saint Patrick. The historic Patrick encourages us as ambassadors for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Patrick’s Story

Patrick was born around 386 A.D. in southern Britain to wealthy parents. Patrick’s dad was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. But despite those positions of spiritual leadership, Patrick had no heart for the things of the Lord. When he was 16 years old, he and others were kidnapped by barbarian raiders from Ireland and taken to the island to be employed as slaves. Patrick says, “it was there that he Lord opened my awareness of my lack of faith….so I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance. He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil. He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son.”

After Patrick arrived in Ireland, he was a shepherd and he tended sheep every day. During those times he prayed at length each day. He drew close the Lord. After six years of being a shepherd, one night, he believed he heard a voice from God telling him to return to his native country. He felt as though he also heard, “Look-your ship is ready.” Turns out, he had been taken 200 miles inland. He traversed those miles and arrived at the shore. The day he arrived there was a ship that was about to leave. Patrick asked them to sail with them, but the captain replied gruffly, “Don’t you dare try to come with us.” When Patrick heard that he despondently turned and began to pray. Then, he heard one of them shout to him, “Come quickly-those men are calling you!” When he returned to the crew of the ship they now said, “Come-we’ll trust you. Prove you’re our friend in any way you wish.” The tradition back then (as gross as it sounds!) was for you to suck the chest of someone who you were making a promise to. But, Patrick refused the custom “because of my reverence for God. They were pagans, and I hoped they might come to faith in Jesus Christ.” They set sail immediately.

Patrick returned to his family for an amazing reunion. They pleaded with Patrick that he would never leave them again. However, Patrick began having repeated visions of those from Ireland pleading with him to come back. He prepared for ministry and was ordained as a pastor. The burden for the people who had kidnapped him became so great that he returned to Ireland to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the “barbarians.” 25 years after fleeing Ireland, in 432, he returned to the location of his enslavement. Patrick led many to faith in the Lord Jesus, including the King. Patrick became known as “the Apostle to Ireland.” He planted churches all over Ireland.

Patrick died on March 17, 461. He was buried in the Hill of Down in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.

Patrick teaches us something about Christian doctrine.

During the first four-hundred years of the church, through councils, creeds, and confessions the church articulated orthodox understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. For instance, the Council of Chalcedon, the fourth ecumenical council, took place in 451 A.D. So to read Patrick’s clear confession of the triune God is remarkable.

“This is because there is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father. He is the one who was not begotten, the one without a beginning, the one from whom all beginnings come, the one who holds all things in being – this is our teaching. And his son, Jesus Christ, whom we testify has always been, since before the beginning of this age, with the father in a spiritual way. He was begotten in an indescribable way before every beginning. Everything we can see, and everything beyond our sight, was made through him. He became a human being; and, having overcome death, was welcomed to the heavens to the Father. The Father gave him all power over every being, both heavenly and earthly and beneath the earth. Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God. He is judge of the living and of the dead; he rewards every person according to their deeds. He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality, who makes believers and those who listen to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ. This is the one we acknowledge and adore – one God in a trinity of the sacred name”

Patrick demonstrates vividly the importance of sound doctrine. Interestingly, the legends focus upon the magical and miraculous that were allegedly performed by Patrick. But the truth is that Patrick was clearly a thoughtful theologian.

Patrick teaches us something about Christian duty.

Patrick returns to his captors to preach Jesus Christ to them. It was dangerous. “Daily, I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises. But I fear nothing, because of the promises of heaven.” Patrick should rekindle a love for missions among the church. Between the Apostle Paul and William Carey there were gospel-missionaries like Patrick, the Apostle to Ireland. Are there groups of people that we honestly don't believe, say, the islamic world, could come to faith in Christ? Patrick's example of faithfully preaching the gospel to the barbarians, should build our faith.

Sadly, one of the most significant missionaries in the history of the church has been kidnapped again. Patrick has been kidnapped by secular customs and the great missionary has been reduced to green beer and leprechauns. Let’s reclaim the motivating story of Patrick, the Apostle to Ireland.

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