St. Patrick: One of the Greatest Missionaries of All Time

St. PatrickWhen you hear the name of St. Patrick, what comes to mind?

Green beer? … Leprachans … four leaf clovers?  St. Patrick is one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Christian church!

Patrick, though not an Irish man himself, is known as “the Apostle of Ireland.”  He was born in Britain, about 373 A.D.  When he was 16 years old he was captured by some Irish marauders who took him captive to Ireland. Six years were spent as a shepherd among the barbarians. During this time he lived in horrible conditions, but he admits it was during this time that he prayed and meditated on God’s Word. Patrick eventually escaped to France, where for several years he served as a monk in the Abbey of Lerins. He finally returned to Britain to be with his family.

But he had a dream.  In this dream he heard voices calling him, “We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk again among us as before.” He should return to Ireland as a minister of God.  He took this dream as a sign from the Lord that he should return to the Irish and convert them from their Druidic paganism to Christ.

Obediently, Patrick set to work on what would become a lifelong task.  He studied for year and became a priest.  He petitioned to go to Ireland but was repeatedly denied but finally, the Pope commissioned him to go to Ireland.

According to tradition, Patrick returned to Ireland around 432 and laboured there until 461.  When he arrived Ireland was almost completely heathen but by the time of his death Ireland was largely a Christian country.  The story is told that when he, and a small band, landed their boat in Ireland, they were singing a hymn for divine protection. As they proceeded inland, they met two Irish princes in charge of armed warriors who had orders to kill the Christians.  However, as Patrick spoke a few words the Holy Spirit came upon the soldiers and the princes and converted them and they were baptized.

Patrick encountered Druid priests who attempted to work their demonic magic on him, but he overcame these attempts through the proclamation of the Word and miracles worked by God. Leaders and of the Irish people were drawn to his message with his charity and fearlessness.

According to Irish legend, St. Patrick used the shamrock, a plant sacred to the Druids, to explain the Trinity.  Preaching in the open air, Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock from the grass growing at his feet and shoed it to his listeners as an illustration of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

He argued, preached, and brought Christ with him wherever he traveled.  His first step in evangelizing a new area was to win the political leader in hopes that his subjects would follow.  He also placed great value on spiritual growth – intense training in the Scriptures and were encouraged to be personally involved in the ministry. He also encouraged women to be very involved in the work.  In his path he left converts and churches in construction.  In about the time it took Patrick to walk across the country, Ireland converted from paganism to Christianity.  By 447 A.D., after 15 years of preaching, much of Ireland had been evangelized.  According to Tucker he planted some 200 churches and baptized some 100,000 converts.

When he died he left behind a civilized people, and he left behind towns, schools, seminaries and a love of learning.

Patrick also honoured the Irish culture. He loved Irish legends, poetry and songs and he insisted that this heritage be documented and retained. He lived and worked among the Irish people until his death.

In years to come it was Irish missionaries who brought the Gospel to the Germanic people and who also introduced the Germanic people to art, literature and learning.  It was Irish Christian monks who sought out, copied and protected great literary works (e.g. Iliad by Homer, the lectures of Cicero, etc.) when the Germanic barbarians were sacking Rome and burning books. (From: “In Search of St. Patrick,” by John Murphy Ball, The Lutheran Witness, March 1999, pp. 12-15).

If you have not read The Confessions of St. Patrick, let me encourage you to do so during this time of the year.  It is a brief work and offers a glimpse into the life and work of this missionary.  You can get a free pdf of the book HERE or you can read it on-line HERE.

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