Patrick the Missionary
(Reflections on the life of Saint Patrick)
As in the case of most special days which have Christian origins, St. Patricks Day is
remembered with traditions and celebrations which have little or nothing to do with what
actually happened in history. Every March 17th people pull green-clothes out of their
closets and perhaps attend a St. Patricks Day parade (especially if theyre politicians),
but little if any interest is paid to exactly who Patrick was.
Contrary to common belief, Patrick was not Irish at all but born and raised on English
soil. Although he had the great privilege of a Christian home, Patrick did not know
Christ personally until after he was taken captive by an Irish raiding party around the year
AD 405 when he was a teenager. But lets hear the story Patrick himself tells as recorded
in his own Confessions:
I, Patrick, a sinner, the rudest and the least of all the faithful, and most contemptible to
very many, had for my father, Calpornius, a deacon, a son of Potitus, a presbyter, who
dwelt in the village of Bannavem, Taberniae, for he had a small farm hard by the place
where I was taken captive. I was nearly 16 years of age. I did not know the true God,
and I was taken to Ireland in captivity with so many thousand men, in accordance with
our deserts, because we had departed from God, and we kept not his precepts, and were
not obedient to our priest who admonished us for our salvation.
Reading between the lines, Patrick is really telling us he was rebellious teenager who did
not pay much attention to what his parents taught him about Christ. Consequently, God
let him learn the hard way during his captivity.
It has been quite well established that Patrick was the slave of a chieftain, Miliuuc, in the
area of Co. Antrium, Northern Ireland -- at a place called Slemish. There as a shepherd
Patrick experienced something similar to the adventures of David, the shepherd son of
Now after I came to Ireland, tending flocks was my daily occupation, and constantly I
used to pray in the day time. Love of God and fear of Him increased more and more, and
faith grew, and the spirit was moved, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred
prayers, and at night nearly as many, so that I used to stay even in the wood and on the
mountain to this end. And before daybreak I used to be roused to prayer, in snow, in
frost, in rain; and I felt no hurt, nor was there any sluggishness in me as I now see,
because then the Spirit was fervent within me.
During his six years of harsh slavery, Patrick learned to love Jesus as Savior and Lord.
As in the case of David, Patricks difficult training school as a shepherd stood him in
good stead as he was prepared for momentous things to come.
By Gods grace, Patrick escaped his cruel master, Miliuuc, and sailed on a vessel bound
for Europe with a cargo of Irish wolfhounds highly prized for their hunting ability.
Characteristic of his zeal for Christ, the future missionary to Ireland prayed that some of
them (the crew) would come to into the faith of Jesus Christ, for they were heathen.
Through an experience of near starvation with the ships crew in southern Gaul due to
the barbarisms of Vandals and Sueves Patrick apparently was able to lead some of his
shipmates to Christ.
As best as can be deciphered, the apostle to Ireland then received valuable theological
training in the Latin Vulgate at the community of Lerins -- the oldest monestery in
western Europe founded by St. Honoratus on the present-day island of Sain-Honorat off
the southeastern coast of Gaul (France). There he would come into contact with the
thought of some of the greatest minds of his day -- Augustine, Ambrose, Martin of Tours
After an undetermined number of years, Patrick returned to his native Britain. Again he
tells his own story:
And again a few years later I was in Britain with my kinsfolk, and they welcomed me as
a son and asked me earnestly not to go off anywhere and leave them this time, after the
great tribulations which I had been through. And it was there that I saw one night in a
vision a man coming as it were from Ireland (his name was Victoricus), with countless
letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the heading of the letter, The Voice of
the Irish, and as I read these opening words aloud, I imagined at that very instant I heard
the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea; and
thus they cried, as though with one voice: We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk
again among us; and I was stung with remorse in my heart and could not read on, and so
I awoke. Thanks be to God, that after so many years the Lord bestowed on them
according to their cry.
One cannot help comparing Patricks missionary call to Ireland to the great Macedonian
Call which was given to Paul as recorded in Acts 16:6-10. Further, Patrick relates:
And another night, whether within me or beside, I cannot tell, God knows, in most
admirable words which I heard and could not understand, except that at the end of the
prayer He thus affirmed, He who laid down his life for you, He it is who speaks in you.
And so I awoke, rejoicing.
When God wishes to reach a people for his Name, He will move heaven and earth to do it!
Although there was some question on the part of his own people as to the fitness of
Patrick to carry the Gospel to Ireland, he never forgot the call her had received. Also,
there were others who tried to persuade him to stay home because of the notorious
reputation of Irish raiders in western Britain! From the time of his call to his actual
arrival in Ireland AD 322, fourteen long years went by. It is thought that Patrick returned
to southern Gaul to study further at a monastery in Auxerre, a center of Christian learning
under the leadership of Germanus.
In the providence of God, think of the preparation He provided for Patrick to be the
apostle to Ireland! First, he had the privilege of Christian parents. Then, his six years of
slavery in Ireland taught him the ways of Celtic culture. During that time he was able to
master the Gaelic (Celtic, or Irish) language. But most of all, his time slavery brought
him to the place of personal commitment to Jesus Christ! In addition, his voyage to
southern Gaul opened up to him a world of biblical learning.! Surely, one can see the
marvelous direction of God in all of the events which took Patrick to the historic year of
AD 432 when Patrick landed on Irish soil as a foreign missionary called by God to
bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to a people steeped in pagan superstition.
The clash with Celtic pagan religion and powerful Druid priests was soon to come. After
landing in Co. Down on the shores of Strangford Laugh and traveling inland, Patrick
came upon one of the numerous tribal chieftains, one Dichu. Surely God had been
preparing the man, for he soon became a believer the first under Patricks preaching.
After traveling north to Co. Antrium in order to spread the Gospel, the scene of his six
years as a shepherd slave, Patrick turned his eyes south toward the Kingdom of Meath
and Royal Tara, the home of High King Loaghaire and the center of Celtic religious
power. It was AD 433 when traditional history records Patricks challenge to Druid
power with the lighting of forbidden fire some ten miles north of Tara on the hill of Slane.
The battle was joined, and through divine intervention, King Loaghaire permitted the
propagation of Christianity. From that point on the Gospel fire spread throughout all
Ireland. Patrick had gone straight to the source of pagan Druid power, and God had
given him the victory! Countless places like Rosecommon, Shancoe, Ballymote,
Knocknaree, Sligo, Mayo, Kilmore, Ailfinn, Crochan, and Cashel lay ahead of him.
AD 144 marked the establishment of Armagh as the center for Celtic Christianity under
the leadership of Patrick.
We can feel the honest expression of a missionary heart in Patricks own words:
And so even if I wanted to part with them (the Irish) and head for Britain and I would
have been only too glad to do so, to see my homeland and family; and not only that, but
to go on to Gaul to visit the brethren and to see the face of my Lords holy men; God
knows that I longed to, but I am bound by the Spirit who testifies to me that if I do so He
will mark me out as guilty, and I am afraid of wasting the labour which I have begun
and not I, but Christ the Lord who commanded me to come to be with them for the rest of
my life, if the Lord so desire and shield me from every evil way, so that I may not sin
Indeed, the Lord did shield Patrick from harm, and he went on to live until the year
AD 461 and took his rest at the age of 72. Patrick himself closes his Confessions with
the following words:
See now I commend my soul to my God in whom we trust absolutely, for whom I am an
ambassador despite my obscurity, because He is no respecter of persons and He chose me
for this task, to be just one among the least his servants.
And so may God never allow me to be separated from his people which He has won in
the ends of the earth. I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign to grant that I
prove a faithful witness to him until I pass on, for my Gods sake.
But I beg those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to look at or receive this
document which the unlearned sinner Patrick drew up in Ireland, that no one should ever
say that if I have accomplished anything, however trivial, or may have shown the way
according to Gods good pleasure, it was my ignorance at work, but consider and accept
as the undeniable truth that it would have been Gods gift. And this is my declaration
before I die.
Throughout Patricks writings, his Confessions, the Letter to Coroticus, and his
Breastplate, biblical influence is evident. There is no doubt Patrick was a keen student of
the Holy Scriptures. The Latin Bible was his constant companion. Such loyalty to the
Scriptures accounts for the fact that theological controversies of the day had very little
influence on him. None of the Romanizing influences which crept into the Church in
later centuries are found in his writings such as transubstantiation, purgatory, papal
infallibility, veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mediation of the saints etc. What
does surface in Patricks writings is his humble, loving service for Jesus Christ which is
obediently translated into sacrificial missionary outreach. His one passion was obedience
to Christ in the making of disciples in all nations!
Only Patricks writings themselves can be taken as accurate history. Even Muirchus
Life of Saint Patrick written more than two centuries later cannot help but have been
influenced by legend. Later works such the Book of Armagh and the Tripartite Life of
Saint Patrick have been highly covered with the crust of tradition.
If Patrick were alive today he would surely ask, Where is it that men walk in darkness
without the light of Christ? That is where I want to go! He believed Jesus who taught:
But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the
ends of the earth., Acts 1:8.
The Lorica of Saint Patrick
I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three.
I bind this day to me forever, the power of faith, Christs Incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan River; his death on the Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spiced tomb; his riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom: I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet Well done in judgment; the service of the seraphim;
Confessors faith, apostles word, the patriarchs prayers, the prophets scrolls;
All good deeds done unto the Lord, and purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heavn,
The glorious suns life-giving ray; the whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free; the whirling winds tempestuous shocks;
The stable earth; the deep salt sea, around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead;
His eye to watch, his might to stay, his ear to hearken to my need;
The wisdom of my God to teach, his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech, his heavnly host to be my guard.
Christ be within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name, the strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation; Eternal Father, Spirit, Word;
Praise to the Lord of my salvation; salvation is of Christ the Lord. Amen.
Translated by Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander
Patrick, ed. Alice-Boyd Proudfoot, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1983.