On March 17, Irish culture enthusiasts around the world will dress in Kelly green and drink over 17 million pints of Guinness. The parties and parades commemorate the Feast of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s most famous patron saint. This cultural and religious celebration is held on the traditional date of Saint Patrick’s death in 461.
Yet, most of those celebrating may not care too much about who Saint Patrick was, nor the story of his conversion and devotion to the gospel that impacted not just Ireland, but all of Western civilization.
Rebellious Teen Turned Slave
Patrick (or as he referred to himself in his native Latin, Patricius) wasn’t even Irish, but was born to a middle-class clergyman and his wife toward the end of the Roman empire’s rule in Britain. When he was a teenager, Patrick’s home, probably on the west coast of Britain, was attacked and he was abducted by Irish raiders. Patrick was taken to Ireland and sold as a slave to an Irish king, where he served as a shepherd.
Although his father was a clergyman, Patrick did not yet have a strong faith. In the despair of his alienated existence as a slave-shepherd, he began reaching out to God. Patrick’s Confessions tells us:
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 six years of slavery, one night Patrick heard God speak to him: “…very soon you will return to your native country…Look – your ship is ready.” Patrick ran away and traveled over 200 miles to the coast where, providentially, he was able to find passage on a ship about to depart for Britain.
Slave for the Gospel
Patrick found his way back to his family, but was forever changed by the experience of his captivity, conversion, and flight to freedom. He felt God was leading him to the priesthood, and he eventually entered a monastery; ultimately, he would become a bishop in the church. And 30 years after he had escaped slavery, Patrick felt God calling him to carry the gospel back to Ireland.
Patrick knew his task would not be easy, but he had heard the people of Ireland calling to him in visions soon after he returned to Britain:
They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply…I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for.
God blessed Patrick’s work in Ireland, bringing thousands into the faith, in spite of opposition from the population he came to serve. Knowing and having a heart for the people, Patrick was the right man at the right time to bring the gospel to Ireland.
Living Out His Calling to Community: Speaking Out for the Oppressed
Patrick shows us that the work, paid and unpaid, God calls us to do falls into four areas. As Os Guinness writes in his book, The Call, God calls us to work in our vocation, our community, our family, and our church. As a missionary, Patrick’s call to vocation and church overlapped. But one thing that is often missed is how Patrick fulfilled his call to serve the community during his time in Ireland.
Patrick’s Confession and Letter to Coroticus inform us that he was one of the first Christian opponents of slavery. He was particularly concerned about how Christian women suffered in slavery:
In addition, there are the widows…Of all these, those held in slavery work hardest – they bear even terror and threats, but the Lord gives grace to so many of the women who serve him. Even when it is forbidden, they bravely follow his example.
In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill also describes how Patrick brought literacy and learning to the Irish people, creating conditions that allowed Ireland to become “the isle of saints and scholars” and preserving Western culture throughout the Dark Ages. Hundreds of years after the death of Patrick, the descendants of monks he trained would be the bridge between the classical age of Rome and the awakening medieval era.
Patrick’s response to God’s call on his life is what we should be celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day. The church today needs more men and women like St. Patrick who love God and, in response, are committed to living out God’s calling in their lives. A peculiar people who, because of their love for the Father, demonstrate a genuine love for people. A people who stand up for what is right and advocate in both prayer and deed for the cause of those who cannot defend themselves.
Editor’s note: What is the difference between your calling and your job? Read more about calling in How Then Should We Work?
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