The life and legacy of St. Patrick
by Josh Pruden
The life of St. Patrick, whose death we commemorate yearly on March 17, is shrouded in ambiguity and folklore. Was his birth name Maewyn Succat? Possibly. Is he the reason Ireland has no snakes? Probably not. Did he explain the Trinity to High King Laoghaire using the three leaves of a shamrock? Well, even if he did, we all know that using analogies to describe the mystery of the Trinity can lead quite quickly to heresy.
On the one side, we have reports of St. Patrick raising the dead, driving snakes into the sea, and miraculous answers to prayer, including herds of swine appearing out of thin air. Others dispute the fact that the saintly figure even existed, and say that his hagiography came out of a conflation of three separate individuals. To avoid either of the proverbial ditches, we’ll stick to the most widely accepted parts of his life and dodge the facts that are widely disputed.
St. Patrick was born in the late fourth century in Britain. The son of a deacon and grandson of a priest, he grew up with a knowledge of Christianity, but according to his admission from his Confessions, he “did not, indeed, know the true God.” At 16 years-old, he was kidnapped by marauders from Ireland and taken back to the Emerald Island as a slave.
During his six years of captivity, Patrick’s faith became a real and living thing. It was in his isolation and desperate circumstances that the teachings of his upbringing came to mind, and Patrick responded with prayer and sincere belief.
After six years in Ireland, Patrick escaped from his owner and boarded a ship headed back to freedom, where he was again captured for a short time and then released. Finally, he made it back to his homeland. Soon after, Patrick had a vision where he was handed letters, written by the Irish people, imploring him to return to share the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Now, I don’t know about you, but going back to the land of my captivity would probably be the furthest thing from my mind at that point, but that was not the case with Patrick. Instead, he committed himself to the study of the Word in preparation for his return. After several years of training, Patrick was ordained into the priesthood and set sail, this time of his own accord, back to Ireland.
It is a common misconception that St. Patrick brought the gospel to Ireland in the first place. However, Patrick himself stated that his mission was to both spread the gospel and strengthen and minister to existing believers. It can’t be denied, though, that he was singularly used by God to Christianize the pagan island. St. Patrick spent the rest of his life traveling around the country, converting commoners, kings, druids, and slaves alike. When he died on March 17, sometime between 460-493 AD, his position as the ‘Apostle of Ireland’ was secured through his sincerity and tenacity.
So that was his life, but what of his legacy? First and foremost, we learn from the life of St. Patrick that there is hope in exile. Maybe it’s a struggling marriage, a lifelong battle with depression, a loss of work or a loved one, or any myriad of issues that we face. We can look to Patrick’s example of turning to prayer and faithfulness in seasons of difficulty.
Secondly, we learn from the legacy of St. Patrick that a sincere faith leads to concern for the lost. In Patrick’s case, the lost that he was concerned about were his actual physical enemies. This kind of radical love of enemies is precisely what Jesus was talking about when he said in Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (ESV).
And the third lesson we can take from St. Patrick’s life is that we should be winsome in the way we share the gospel. An example of this is the paschal fire that he lit on the top of the Hill of Slane. On the opposing hill, the Hill of Tara, the High King Laoghaire and his attendants were burning fire to the pagan gods, as was their custom. Then, in plain sight and overt opposition to the pagan practice, Patrick lit a flame to serve as a symbol of the Christian celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. That fire is still lit every Easter more than 1,500 years later.
We won’t all be known as the patron saint of an entire nation, but we can all be faithful where God has us. And, really, that’s all that St. Patrick did.