Saint Patrick

Who WAS St. Patrick...really?
And did he really save civilization?

It's that time of year again and a good time to remember who St. Patrick really was! Perhaps the greatest missionary since the Apostle Paul, Patrick gets little more recognition these days than green beer from most of us. And there's never even been a major motion picture made about him. He really does deserves better.

So after my mom dropped a bombshell several years ago on us kids and let us know that her heritage was NOT Scottish (as my dad's side of the family mostly is) but actually Irish, I thought I'd write about the man who is possibly my favorite "saint" (in a non-catholic way) after the Apostle Paul. So read on to find out who this person we today know as Saint Patrick really was.

As the rivers of Chicago are running green, the parades are being held, green beer is being dispensed in Irish pubs everywhere, people are wearing shamrocks, Irish jokes and limericks are being recited, and idiotic artwork is being sent back and forth across the Web, does any of this have anything to do with the real Saint Patrick? Very little.

River of green in Chicago

Yet, if it weren't for Patrick of Ireland, the world today may have been a very different and much worse off place. As Bishop of Ireland, Patrick brought Christianity to the Celtic peoples in the 5th Century AD; and the Irish, in turn, brought education, stability and Christian values - including a vision for the future - to the rest of the Western World at a time when the Roman Empire was self-destructing, barbarian hordes from the north (the Vikings) were moving in for the kill, and hostile Muslims were migrating from the south at an alarming rate.

The person who was to become Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was born in Roman Britain about AD 385. His given name was Maewyn Succat, the son of an Italian father and a Scottish mother, and he almost didn't get the job of Bishop of Ireland because he lacked the required scholarship.

Far from starting life as a saint, or even a Christian, he was your everyday run of the mill Celtic pagan up until he turned 16. At that age, he was suddenly sold into slavery by a group of Irish marauders that raided his village and took him captive (remember, back in that time, barbarism was still the way of life in northern Europe and much of the world).

Maewyn Succat as a slave tending sheep

During his time as a slave, he experienced a spiritual awakening that drew him closer to God. After six long tortuous years, he managed to escape from his slave masters and traveled to Gaul (south eastern Europe) where he studied in a monastery under St. Germain, Bishop of Auxerre for a period of twelve years. During his training he had a vision in which he saw the Irish people begging him to return and bring them the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.

But though the calling on his heart was to return to Ireland and bring the good news of Christ to the native pagans, his superiors granted that job instead to Palladius. However, two years later Palladius transferred to Scotland. And Maewyn, having now adopted the Christian name Patrick, was finally appointed as second bishop to Ireland.

Patrick was quite successful at spreading the Gospel of Christ and bringing many souls to Jesus. Not surprisingly, this greatly upset the Celtic Druids resulting in Patrick's arrest numerous times. But, with God's help, Patrick would escape each time and continued to travel throughout Ireland, establishing monasteries across the country. He also set up schools and churches which would aid him in his mission of drawing the people of Ireland to true Christianity.

His mission in Ireland lasted for thirty years. After that time, Patrick retired to County Down, where he died on March 17 in AD 461. That day has been commemorated as St. Patrick's Day ever since.

County Down, Ireland where Patrick retired to until his death

The Irish saved civilization by saving it spiritually, culturally and in every other way that people can be saved. While Germanic barbarians were burning the libraries of Europe, Irish monks were painstakingly and lovingly copying books by hand in monasteries all over Ireland. Gorgeously artistic manuscripts, like the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, were the result. When the Post-Roman Empire was on the brink of sinking into the dark mire of ignorance and fear, Irish monks were traveling all over Europe, building monasteries as centers of learning and enlightenment. When most people groups were still in chaos and wandering over the face of Europe, looking for an identity and a place to call home, Irish monks were intentionally on mission, spreading Celtic Christian culture that became the foundation of Medieval society.

They were called "warrior-monks." They could also be called "warrior-poets." They were at least spiritual warriors. Patrick was the first, but there were thousands that followed, each adding more and more light to an otherwise benighted world. Patrick was, in every sense of the word, a missionary. But so were all the monks that followed. They were called "Green Martyrs" and "White Martyrs" because they gave up everything: first of all, to focus all their attention on Christ, and to live simply and naturally with God's Creation (Green Martyrdom); but then, later, to strike out into the world and take the Gospel of the Creator to the lost members of that Creation (White Martyrdom). They were as effective as their First Century counterparts: the Word of God spread like wildfire.

Irish "Warrior Monks" preparing to sail to Northern Europe to share the Gospel

There were certain characteristics that distinguished Bishop Patrick, as well as his followers:

1) they loved nature and nature's God;

2) they were highly imaginative and extremely creative;

3) they believed in TRUE Christianity as opposed to the religious orthodoxy of the day, accepting people's differences and practicing inclusiveness;

4) they were courageous, walking, as it were, right into the lion's den;

5) they were tenaciously loyal; and

6) they were generous to a fault.

These qualities endeared the brothers to their flocks and stood in sharp contrast to the worldly and political Roman Church of that day.

There was another characteristic that abounded in Patrick and spilled over into his followers: his mystical, supernatural powers. There are so many miracles attributed to Patrick of Ireland that one would think the First Century Apostles had come back to life: stories about warriors' swords going through him but not hurting him, of his walking through fire unharmed, of his running all the snakes out of Ireland, of his seeing visions, etc. It was these signs, coupled with the Gospel message of Christ's love and forgiveness and Patrick's own servant's heart, that convinced the superstitious, magic-minded Irish to believe in the true Creator God Jehovah.

Patrick performing miracles

After centuries of serving the world as bearers and protectors of the Light, the suffering of the Irish had just begun:

In 793 AD, Danish Vikings began invading Briton and in 795, Norwegian Vikings raided Rathlin Island off the coast of Antrim, burning the church there. West coast monasteries on Inismurray and Inisborfin were plundered. By 875 AD, Norse invaders had destroyed all the monasteries the monks had built. Ireland never recovered its cultural leadership of Europe.

Vikings invade Ireland

In 1170 AD, Anglo-Normans invaded and occupied Ireland. Fortunately, the Irish were able to absorb them culturally.

In 1556 AD, the Elizabethan English invaded. They were met with opposition and subsequently destroyed the forests while trying to rout out dissenters.

In 1649 AD, Oliver Cromwell invaded and began the wholesale slaughter of Catholics. The Irish came close to extinction.

In 1690, the last of the Irish nobility left because of the intolerable conditions created by the British. (This was known as "the Flight of the Wild Geese.")

Irish nobility leaving Ireland in the "Flight Of The Wild Geese"

In 1695, British Penal Laws were enacted that deprived Catholics of their civil rights.

Between 1845 and 1851, after British landowners had abused the land for centuries, famines ravaged Ireland, killing one-sixth of the population. Another one-third fled the country in search of bread.

From 1916 to 1921, the Irish fought for their independence against the British.

In 1922, an Irish Free State was established, but Northern Ireland remained under British rule. Ireland remains divided to this day.

Divided Ireland

We continually hear of how other races and people groups have been mistreated in the past, from Native Americans to African-Americans to women and now homosexuals. No people have suffered more than the Irish. Yet, no people have complained less or had a better attitude - especially considering how much they've contributed to the world. The best we can do is thank God for them and show our appreciation for all they have given us.

In many ways, the Irish could remind us of the Children of Israel. While Israel was the least of all ancient nations, caught in the cross-roads of the world; Ireland was the least of all modern nations, lost on the outskirts of the world. Yet God has used both those nations in wonderful ways. I pray He will again.



St. Patrick's Day Trivia:

One traditional icon of the day is the shamrock. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity. He used it in his sermons to represent how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit could all exist as separate elements of the same entity. After his death, his followers adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day.

The Shamrock

The St. Patrick's Day custom didn't come to America until 1737, the first year St. Patrick's Day was publicly celebrated, in Boston, Mass.

(research by Whitehurst and Waitsel)