St. Patrick: The Missionary

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The real Patrick of Ireland, behind the lore, served as one of the first missionaries during the patristic era. He is most well known to us as the patron saint of Ireland—patronized in the 7th century by the Irish Catholic Church. We memorialize him every “St. Patrick’s Day”—March 17, the attributed day of his death.[1] Most are probably unaware how similar his ministry was to modern day missions. Instead, his lore seems to be remembered and honored wearing green and a pub holiday. He is rumored to have risen and healed many dead men (cf. Life and Acts of St. Patrick, Jocelin). Especially within Irish folklore, Patrick is well known to have banished all the snakes from Ireland into the sea. Legend aside, the real Patrick’s work is worthy of honor. These posts seek to bring the real Patrick to the forefront.

Due to these many legends, it is no wonder that Patrick maintains more global awareness than other Patristic figure. As E. A. Thompson notes,

“No one could have guessed that one day his name [Patrick] would be more widely known through the world than that names of Jerome and Augustine and even Constantine the Great himself.”[2]

Patrick of Ireland was probably born just prior to the 5th century around A.D. 390.[3] He is a British man that eventually finds his way to Ireland. His death is generally dated around A.D. 460. These dates make Patrick a contemporary to Jerome (d. 420), to Augustine (d. 430), to Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), to John Chrysostom (d. 407), the council of Chalcedon in 451, as well as vast portions of the fall of the Great Roman Empire in 476 (beginning c. 376).

The Young Life of Patrick

By the time Patrick is born circa 390,[4] Roman rule roughly influenced the British province for nearly 350 years.[5] Pro-Nicene and orthodox Trinitarian Theology may have already influenced the British church.

The opening few paragraph’s of Confessio detail the early life and lineage of Patrick’s life.

“I am Patrick, a Sinner and a very unsophisticated (rusticissimus) man. I am the least of all the faithful and to many the most despised. My father’s name was Calpornius. He was a deacon and his father was the presbyter (presbyteri) Potitus from the town of Bannaventa Berniae. He owned a villa nearby, the place where I was captured when I was about sixteen years old. I didn’t know the true God then. I was taken from there to Ireland with thousands of others. We deserved our fate because we had turned our backs on God and did not obey his commandments. We did not listen to our presbyter who warned us about our salvation. And the Lord overwhelmed us with the anger of his spirit and scattered us among nations even to the very end of the earth. Here my smallness is seen among strangers.”[6]

Patrick’s self-deprecation reflects his own self-identity as well as his former condition as a child. His father, Calpornius, is a deacon and his grandfather, Potitus, is a presbyter. Thus, it is highly likely that Patrick was raised in the church. He recalls hearing the commandments of God — more broadly, the Word of God — including the Gospel as told through the presbyter.

Patrick also identifies the place of his early upbringing: Bannaventa Berniae. Regrettably, this hometown identification offers little help. The name of his city could be distorted through transcription because the only city with this name, known to us today, is a mile from the village of Norton in Northamptonshire.[7]

Though an exact location is difficult to ascertain, this town does confirm, then, that Patrick is born and raised within Roman Britain and more likely on the west coast, more susceptible to Irish raiders.

Irish Captivity and Patrick’s Conversion

Patrick details his captivity with vivid detail. By the time Patrick reaches his mid-teenage years (16 years of age), Irish raiders come and capture him. Patrick was “captured when I was about 16 years old.”[8] Notably, it wasn’t just Patrick. In fact, Patrick records that scores of British natives were taken captive: “I was taken from there [Bannaventa Berniae] to Ireland with thousands of others.”[9]

This massive exodus is quite probably the invasion of the Germanic peoples in 406/407. It has been well documented among historians that Irish raiders were threats to the British Empire.[10]

Interestingly, though, Patrick does not attribute this exodus due to a lack of military or resistance efforts, but offers a theological reason. Patrick evokes the language of the Hebrew Bible as the prophets speak of the judgment and exile of Israel.[11]

“We deserved our fate because we had turned our backs on God and did not obey his commandments. We did not listen to our presbyter who warned us about our salvation. And the Lord overwhelmed us with the anger of his spirit and scattered us among many nations even to the ever end of the earth.”[12]

In this deportation, Patrick attributes his failure to heed the message of the presbyter and then self-embodies the story of Israel’s failure.

It was through this event that Patrick attributes his conversion. It is through a late night reflection that Patrick is cognizant of his sinful ways and turns his whole heart to the Lord. In his conversion, he recognizes the work of the Trinity and uses a theological Eden (i.e., New Creation) metaphor for his turn.

“And in Ireland the Lord opened my understanding about my unbelief so that although it was late I might become aware of my sinful ways and turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God. He looked upon my misery and had mercy on my youth and ignorance. God watched over me before I knew him, before I had any wisdom, before I could distinguish between good and evil. He protected and comforted me as a father would his son.”[13]

The result of his conversion quickly transformed his environment as a means of piety and spiritual growth. Even as a newly identified Irish slave, his prayer life and piety only increased.

“When I came to Ireland as a slave, I tended sheep daily and prayed frequently. My love for God grew more and more, and my fear of him as well, while my faith and spirit increased. In a single day I would pray a hundred times and the same at night, even when I was in the woods on the mountain. I rose before dawn to pray through snow or cold or rain. I suffered no harm from it and there was no laziness in me. I can see now that the Spirit was burning inside of me.”[14]

Even in his vocation, Patrick’s spiritual disciplines grew and developed through fervent work of the Spirit dwelling within him.

As he nears the end of his life, Patrick still reflected positively on his Irish slavery. It was the means to transform his condition and to alter his loves.

“I didn’t go to Ireland of my own free will. Indeed I almost died there. But it turned out well for me since I was chastised by the Lord. God made me what I am today, someone far different than I was then, so that I might work for the care and salvation of others. At that time I didn’t even care about myself.”[15]

Reflecting on his time as a slave, God used this time to change Patrick’s heart transforming his sole love of self towards the love and salvation for others.

“Thus Patrick, who began his captivity with little or no indication of religious piety, would eventually return to his native Britain a devout Christian.”[16]

[1] Thomas O’Loughlin, Discovering Saint Patrick (New York: Paulist Press, 2005), 131–32.

[2] E. A. Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick? (Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 1985), 15.

[3] Michael A.G. Haykin, Aaron Matherly, and Shawn J. Wilhite, Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact, Early Church Fathers (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 2014), 13.

[4] Consult the multiple arguments coalesced around the dating of Patrick’s life: Haykin, Matherly, and Wilhite, Patrick of Ireland, 32–35.

[5] Haykin, Matherly, and Wilhite, Patrick of Ireland, 21.

[6] Confessio 1, (altered).

[7] Haykin, Matherly, and Wilhite, Patrick of Ireland, 31.

[8] Confessio 1.

[9] Confessio 1.

[10] De Paor, Patrick, 33; Malcolm Lambert, Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede (London: Yale University Press, 2010), 49–51.

[11] Is 42:25; Jer 9:16; Ezek 4:13; Tobit 13.5.

[12] Confessio 1, (altered).

[13] Confessio 2.

[14] Confessio 16.

[15] Confessio 28.

[16] Haykin, Matherly, and Wilhite, Patrick of Ireland, 37.

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