The Role of Faith in the History of St. Patrick
The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the United States took place in 1737 in Boston, MA. At that time, St. Patrick’s Day was primarily a way for Irish-Americans to celebrate their pride in their culture. For many, St. Patrick’s Day has become associated with leprechauns, parades, four-leaf clovers, good luck, and green-themed parties. In the midst of these celebrations, it is easy to forget the history of St. Patrick and the fact that he was a man who had crises of faith, who had to wait for God’s timing, and who experienced the grace of God over a lifetime of service.
What do we really know about the history of St. Patrick of Ireland, on whose traditional saint’s day rivers run green and parades crowd the streets? Much of St. Patrick’s life has become legend, and it can be difficult to judge what is fact and what is embellishment. However, the events from St. Patrick’s life that are known hold valuable lessons for Christians today.
St. Patrick was born into a Christian family, but was not initially an active believer. We know this from St. Patrick’s Confession, which contains his own version of the events in his life. The truth is that while growing up in a Christian family is an advantage, it does not always guarantee an active life in Christ. Many Christians become sedentary in their relationship with God. Knowing the history of St. Patrick and the fact that he started out in this position can give others hope. After all, God still used him to help bring Christianity to Ireland.
St. Patrick was captured and brought to Ireland to work as a slave for six years. Even though Patrick was born into a relatively wealthy family, through his capture he lost control of a lot of elements in his life, even his freedom. In the midst of these circumstances Patrick turned to God, “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.” While his life was in upheaval, his faith in God became the calm center. Even though he had no control over the physical aspects of his life, God used this time to draw Patrick closer to Himself.
St. Patrick escaped and moved forward, led by God’s voice. In his Confession, St. Patrick says he heard God’s voice telling him it was time for him to leave the place where he was serving as a slave. Following God’s instructions he left Ireland. Even though God had allowed Patrick to remain enslaved for a time, He had further plans for Patrick’s life. In some ways it might have been more comfortable for Patrick to remain where he was, where he had a routine, and where he didn’t have the responsibilities of making decisions. Sometimes it can be easy to get comfortable and sedentary. We need God’s voice to call us back to life.
St. Patrick received a calling to serve the Irish people as a missionary. According to his Confession, while he was recuperating in his parent’s house, Patrick received a vision. He heard the voices of the people he had known in Ireland saying, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” He had escaped slavery and now he was being asked to return. How frustrating it can be to be asked to do something we don’t understand! In that moment it is important to remember that God’s plan for our lives is greater than anything we can imagine.
St. Patrick became a priest to ready himself for the work God planned for him. St. Patrick was obedient to God’s calling. At that time, the only way for Patrick to return to Ireland for missionary work was as a priest. So he joined the church and undertook the years of study and discipline it took for him to become a bishop. Today it may seem strange to us that Patrick did not simply go to Ireland as soon as he was called, but it seems he learned patience while he was being held as a slave. Instead, he took the time to prepare himself for his task ahead, studying scriptures, praying, and worshipping God.
St. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary when God’s timing was right. The discipline to wait for God’s timing when we feel certain we know where God is sending us can be one of the most difficult to learn. With a limited view of time and space, we are used to thinking in terms of here and now. Instead, Patrick waited, knowing his mission, until God made it possible for him to go. It is easy to imagine the joy in his heart when he was finally on the boat, returning to Ireland, where God used him to bring Christianity to the Irish people.
“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.”
The history of St. Patrick holds many lessons for Christians. A big lesson is reflected in the quote above, as it is also seen in Romans 5:8, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” One of the reasons that it is easy to find points of connection with St. Patrick is that he was very human. His struggles were not so different from those of Christians today. Yet God chose an imperfect man, showed him grace, and used him for a great purpose.
Another point that stands out to me in the history of St. Patrick is that St. Patrick’s service took place over a lifetime. He did not start on a specific path at a young age and remain in one place, in one job until the end of his life. Over the course of his life, he served in many different places and in many different ways. Modern culture can place a lot of pressure on finding “the right” career early in life. By examining the history of St. Patrick of Ireland we can learn that through God’s grace our service can take place in a variety of circumstances and in different locations.