March 17, 2009

St. Patrick = One of the coolest cats in Church history

For most, St. Patrick's day is all about wearing green, downing cheap beer and trying to convince people of one's Irish ethnicity in order to receive some smoochin'. Having been born and raised in Savannah, I know all about St. Patty's and celebrated it every year with my family. Mom would make green pancakes and I would put on my plastic green bowler hat as we headed out the door to go watch the parade through the squares. (Only later as I got older did I realize that St. Patty's doesn't really begin until sundown for most of the half-million visitors to the city each year...)

Despite celebrating it my entire life, and despite actually looking like a grown-up leprechaun myself, it wasn't until seminary that I actually learned Patrick's story and what he did for the history of Christianity. For instance, every time you see a celtic cross, you're seeing the legacy of Patrick.

For those of you in the Dojo who have never truly heard Patrick's story, check out this article. Here's an excerpt:

Patrick was 16 years old in about the year 405, when he was captured in a raid and became a slave in what was still radically pagan Ireland. Far from home, he clung to the religion he had ignored as a teenager. Even though his grandfather had been a priest, and his father a town councilor, Patrick "knew not the true God." But forced to tend his master's sheep in Ireland, he spent his six years of bondage mainly in prayer. He escaped at the suggestion of a dream and returned home.

Patrick was in his mid-40s when he returned to Ireland.Palladius had not been very successful in his mission, and the returning former slave replaced him. Intimately familiar with the Irish clan system (his former master, Milchu, had been a chieftain), Patrick's strategy was to convert chiefs first, who would then convert their clans through their influence. Reportedly, Milchu was one of his earliest converts.

Though he was not solely responsible for converting the island, Patrick was quite successful. He made missionary journeys all over Ireland, and it soon became known as one of Europe's Christian centers.
Here's how Patrick begins his only surviving written work, "The Confessio":

1. I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement [vicus] of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.
2. And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.
3. Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.

Christian History magazine spent a whole issue exploring Celtic Christianity and Patrick in particular which you can find online at

It would be pretty sweet if Christians took the lead in celebrating what God did through Patrick each year in contrast to the uninformed revelry that has come to symbolize his memory, don't you think? Let's pay homage to our brother in Christ who paved the way for the Gospel to spread to so many of our (okay, at least MY) ancestors. :)

Erin Go Bragh!



brandyglows said...

That is so interesting! I had no idea. And I'm a little embarrassed I didn't. Or that, I suppose, many people haven't got a clue about the real St. Patrick.

I'm curious, tho. If he was an Irishman, how did the holiday become so big here in the US?

JMS said...

Two words - Irish immigration

Especially after the Potato Famine, tons of Irish immigrated to the US and brought with them their pride in their country's patron well as their love for the Emerald Isle's favorite product! :)

Anonymous said...

Well, it certainly is a small world! I was born and raised in Savannah too! Love your blog and your church!

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