St. Patrick and His Confession

St. Patrick and His Confession

Christians can learn many lessons from a man that was humble, acknowledged the grace of God in his life, and spread the faith of Jesus Christ that has continued to be passed down from generation to generation in Irish (and non-Irish) homes around the world. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, let us remember the historical Patrick, one whom the Lord redeemed out of a desperate circumstance and was used as a vessel of the gospel to bring mighty conversion to the nation of Ireland.

There is probably not another missionary in the history of the church that is more elevated than Patrick of Ireland. To go further, it could be argued that Patrick is the most well-known Christian to live in the fifth-century. An objection could be raised at this point to say that Augustine of Hippo holds that distinction in history. Such may be true when it comes to the theological influence of Augustine, but, as one writer put it, how many New Yorkers do you see gathering for a parade on August 28 to celebrate St. Augustine?[1]

Patrick’s life is celebrated every year on March 17 and has come to be known as St. Patrick’s Day. Each year, on that day, not only is Patrick remembered, but the religious and cultural heritage of the Irish is celebrated. Untold numbers of people throughout the world become Irish for the day. It is also a time in which some reflect upon the bitter reality of the contentious history that divides the north from the rest of the Republic of Ireland. That these tensions show up on a day like St. Patrick’s Day is evident in the fact that one would not want to be caught dead walking down the streets of south Boston wearing all orange. Parades line the streets in cities across the globe. Chicago turns the river green, whole scores of other communities put on elaborate pageants with long processions of marching bag pipers. Many of the 32 million people in the United States who claim Irish ancestry proudly wear their “Kiss me, I’m Irish” accoutrements. Still others reflect upon what their ancestors had to endure in order to be welcomed at Ellis Island, all the while collectively spending billions of dollars on the holiday.[2]

Another common theme on this day is that bars and taverns will be bustling. There is rarely, if ever, an empty bar stool to be found on St. Patrick’s Day. The poignant reality is that one of the more contemptible things about this day is the connection people make between the Irish and drunkenness. In fact, it seems that the more inebriated a person gets, at least on this day, the more Irish they become. Or to say it negatively, the less a person drinks, it is as if they lose their Irishness. Now certainly, this is a stigma that the Irish have had following behind them for centuries. There is little question that many of the Irish have felt the pain of alcoholism in their family tree. For most of us (Irish) we all have (or know of) an uncle, or a father, or brother who have been afflicted by the scourge of alcoholism. However, it is fascinating that this kind of calamity has become something to celebrate on Patrick’s Day. Drunkenness is nearly seen as a virtue once a year. It is hard to imagine any other ethnic group that has their stereotypes collectively celebrated so brazenly. Think of a stigma that is connected to a particular people group, and now think of a specific day out of the year that people gather (a majority not being that ethnicity) and openly celebrate it as noble and good.

All of this is to say the drunken festivities and outright paganism[3] that are typically associated with St Patrick’s Day would have horrified the historical Patrick. In fact, although celebrated for his life by many Irish and Irish-Americans, many still do not really know who the true Patricius was. As we will see, the real historical Patrick was a bit different from the legends that grew up around him.

Patrick, from a literary standpoint, was a man of few words. To date, we only have two works that come from his hand. Thus the tendency with such a man is to hoist him and his work up to a mythical status in which there is no shortage of legendary material from which to glean. Some of the most outlandish examples claimed that St. Patrick was able to raise people from the dead. As Rogers states:

In one tale, Patrick and his disciples were passing by a sepulcher of “wondrous strength” so big that Patrick’s followers refused to believe that any man could be buried there. Patrick, to prove that there was indeed a man in the tomb, prayed to bring him back to life. Then stood one before them horrible in stature and in aspect. This terrifying giant broke down, weeping at the sight of Patrick, the man who had released him from the torments of hell. He then begged to join Patrick’s retinue, but the saint refused him, fearful that no one could stand to look on such a terrifying figure as the “man of gigantic stature”. He did, however, invite the giant to believe in the triune God and thus escape hell permanently. The giant believed, was baptized, died again, and was buried, this time to rest in peace.[4]

Other less extravagant stories include Patrick running the snakes out of Ireland, having run-ins with leprechauns, and using a shamrock to instruct people on the Holy Trinity. Yet, according to one writer, two-hundred years before Patrick, the Greek geographer Solinus mentioned that the land of Ireland was free from snakes.[5] And as to the Trinity, we ought to be thankful that there is no record of Patrick adhering to a tri-theistic understanding of God.

At the same time, we should be cautious of the modern idea that we ought to reject something simply because it is miraculous. To the enlightened western mind, anything that has the miraculous in it is automatically suspect. However, from a biblical standpoint, we should affirm the possibility of God using miracles in the life of His people. Is it possible that some of the miracles that have come down in the Patrick tradition find their origin in some historical fact? Certainly. What we want to affirm is that it was possible for God to use miracles in the ministry of Patrick, while at the same time, affirming that many of the miracles surrounding Patrick do not have any bases in the historical record. Thus, we should adopt a healthy balance, not denying miracles simply because they are miraculous, but denying them because there is no evidence that they happened. The story that we know of the historical Patrick is amazing in itself. It shows the mercy of God as He works through history.

Patrick’s Early Life

Patrick was born in a world of turmoil in the Roman Empire. It is impossible to know the exact date of Patrick’s birth but it is possible that his birth year was somewhere in the 380’s and he could have lived as late as the 490’s (though most scholars place his death in the year 461). In any event, it is clear that when Patrick lived, the Roman rule of Britain had already been broken. Patrick’s description of his early life indicates that he grew up in a Christian home. While legends have grown around his childhood, such as the infant Patrick providing water for his own baptism, in his Confession, he claims to have not known the true God as a child.[6]

Ireland in Patrick’s Time

The Irish during this time were a warlike savage people. They had a foolish bravery about them that could lead them into trouble. They had no central government at this time, but had a hundred or so petty kings each, ruling a tuatha, or tribe. This tuatha may include a few hundred people to thousands of people, but was still only a local unit.[7] The religion of Ireland also mirrored their government in the sense that it was localized. These gods and goddesses were connected to the natural world. This was the environment that young Patrick was immersed in when, at sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates in a raid along with thousands of other people. While historians may see a young boy that was dealt an unfortunate hand of cards, Patrick saw this as a form of justice being brought upon him by God for his rebellion. He writes:

At that time, I did not recognize the true God: that was why I was taken as a captive to Ireland, along with many thousands of others with me. We fully deserve to suffer like this for we had all turned our back upon God, we did not keep His commands.[8]

Unfortunately, we do not have information about the physical suffering that he endured as a slave. Patrick never names his master nor the location in which he was taken. Thus, naturally, there has been debate around where he lived during his enslavement. Some historians favor the Slemish Mountains in Antrim, Northern Ireland while others favor the west coast of Mayo near Killala. Yet regardless of his location, Patrick does write of the harsh weather conditions he endured; and how in a time of desperation, he finally turned to the God of his parents:

[T]here, the Lord opened up my senses to my unbelief; so that, though late in the day, I might remember my many sins, and accordingly, I might turn to the Lord my God with all my heart, who has looked upon my lowliness and taken pity on my adolescence, on my ignorance, and kept safe watch over me before I ever knew him, yes, even before I had wit enough to tell good from evil. It was he who strengthened me, consoling me just as a father comforts his son.[9]

He goes on to write:

But after I had come to Ireland, it was then that I was made to shepherd the flocks day after day, and as I did so, I would pray all the time, right through the day. More and more the love of God and fear of him grew strong within me, and as my faith grew, so the Spirit became more and more active, so that in a single day, I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night, only slightly less…in the snow, in frost, in rain, I would hardly notice any discomfort, and I was never slack but always full of energy. It is clear to me now, that this was due to the fervor of the Spirit within me.[10]

As a boy living in comfort and luxury, Patrick rejected the gospel of his parents. Yet, in the midst of pain, hardship, and discomfort, the God of all comforts was there, ready to embrace Patrick with gracious forgiveness through the Lord Jesus Christ. One gets a sense while reading through his Confession that, even though his external conditions were difficult, there was a joy that ran through Patrick as he describes his daily communion with his heavenly Father.

Patrick’s Escape and Return

After six years of enslavement, Patrick incredibly escaped Ireland, catching a ship that was a few hundred miles away back to his home. Yet, despite risking his life to escape Ireland, after some time back home, he received a vision calling him back to the very place that enslaved him. It is worth hearing from Patrick’s own words:

But now as large as life, I had a vision in my dreams, of a man who seemed to come from Ireland: his name was Victoricius and he carried countless letters one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began, “The voice of the Irish”. As I began to read these words I seemed to hear the voice of the same men…they seemed to shout aloud to me as if with one and the same voice: “Holy broth of a boy, we beg you, come back and walk once more among us”. I was utterly pierced to my heart’s core, so that I could read no more.[11]

Before Patrick actually returned to Ireland, he entered into ministerial training. This scared him to death since being captured at age sixteen, he had many gaps in his own education. However, Patrick’s weakness in his education was being used for strength to reach a barbaric people. God kept him humble in his mission.

It would have taken Patrick roughly six years to reach the status of a deacon and a few more years to become a priest. The concept of a priest at the time was probably a reference to a presbyter, but eventually became synonymous with that of a Bishop. Patrick finally became Bishop around the age of fifty.

Ministry in Ireland

Contrary to popular myths and legends, Patrick’s ministry in Ireland had its opposition. He was zealous for the people, and was even willing to die or to be put in prison for sharing the faith with the “Irish Gentiles”. While there were people who looked down upon him, and even were strongly opposed to his message, Patrick records that he eventually had great success with the Irish. From the standpoint of Patrick, he saw the conversions as the hand of God using him to fulfill His mission amongst the Irish. Yet from the human perspective, Patrick accomplished this by making friends with the various kings of the land. This allowed Patrick to go from tuatha to tuatha without fear of being killed. This inevitably led to mass conversions. As one biographer put it:

In a culture of violence, Patrick brought a message of peace. In a civilization known for boasting, he brought an arresting humility. And in a world of arbitrary pagan gods, Patrick brought the message of a personal God who loves his people, even to the extremity of losing his life.[12]

Clearing Away the Confusion

There are a few popular ideas about Patrick that ought to be abandoned. First is the idea that Patrick was the initial one to bring Christianity to Ireland. However, out of the thousands that were brought over to Ireland into captivity, it is more than likely that many of these people were the first Christians in the land. These would have certainly shared their faith with the Irish as well as taught it to their children. One could also add the different merchants that sailed back and forth between Ireland and Britain and may have added to the faith in the first decade of the fifth century.[13] While the names of these people might be unknown to history, credit ought to be given to the unknown faces that were the first Christians to arrive in Ireland.

A second popular notion is that Patrick was the first Bishop of Ireland. There is information however, although limited, which points to a man named Palladius as holding the title of the first Bishop. All we know is that he became Bishop in 431 and that Patrick replaced him in 432.

Patrick’s Confession

As mentioned, the only known works that we have of Patrick are two—the most well-known being his Confession. The Confession was more than likely written in Ireland[14] yet the purpose for writing it is a bit more complicated. There is no question that one of the motivations behind writing it was to defend his ministry. Patrick was charged with some sort of wrongdoing that caused him to respond to his superiors who were back in Britain.[15] However, if this was the only motivation, Patrick went way beyond defending himself. He desired to offer a testimony and acknowledged the work that God had done in his life.[16] The Confession of St. Patrick is such an important work, one that certainly has been eclipsed by other great and lengthier works like Augustine’s Confessions. Yet in both of these works we find men whom God had redeemed from incredible circumstances and through whom God had accomplished wonderful things. Augustine praises God for what He did in his life, as does Patrick. What we see in St. Patrick’s Confession is not only a man defending his ministry but also acutely aware of how the Lord turned a great evil in his life (being sold into slavery) to being a minister of the gospel in a place that so desperately needed it. In it we clearly see the mercies of God to himself and through him to the nation of Ireland. Patrick’s life and works epitomize those ancient words that Joseph, who, years after being sold as a slave, spoke to his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

Patrick’s Confession is also remarkable in that it strictly adhered to Scripture and repeatedly references the Word of God, showing a habitual regard for its authority on matters connected to faith and practice. In this way, St. Patrick acknowledges the value and supremacy of the God-breathed Scriptures.

Christians can learn many lessons from a man that was humble, acknowledged the grace of God in his life, and spread the faith of Jesus Christ that has continued to be passed down from generation to generation in Irish (and non-Irish) homes around the world. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, let us remember the historical Patrick, one whom the Lord redeemed out of a desperate circumstance and was used as a vessel of the gospel to bring mighty conversion to the nation of Ireland.

Sean McGowan is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Westminster PCA in Tallahassee, FL.

[1] See Thomas O’Loughlin, Saint Patrick: The Man and His Works (London, SPCK Publishing, 1999).

[2] For example, the National Retail Federation estimated Americans spent 5.9 billon on the holiday in 2018.

[3] To be clear, I am emphatically not condemning any kind of drinking in moderation, nor am I connecting it with paganism. I am specifically denouncing the sin of drunkenness and the outrageous notion of connecting that sin as something to be celebrated in the Irish community, given the sorrowful conditions it has caused many an Irish family in history and today.

[4] Jonathan Rogers, Saint Patrick (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), xi-xii.

[5] Ibid, x.

[6] The Confession of St. Patrick (Double Day Publishing, 1998), 26.

[7] Rogers, 20.

[8] Confession, 26.

[9] Ibid, 27.

[10] Ibid, 38-39.

[11] Ibid, 45.

[12] Rogers, 71.

[13] Ibid, 54-55.

[14] O’Loughlin, Discovering St. Patrick (Paulist Press, 2005), 60.

[15] Rogers, xii.

[16] O’Loughlin, 61.

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