In his biography of St. Patrick, Michael A.G. Haykin relates a story in which he was asked to give a series of talks at a church, and upon suggesting some names to delve into, (Cyprian, Perpetua, Augustine) the church wrote back that they had never heard of the first two, and knew nothing about Augustine. A deplorable state of affairs, to be sure. However, later in the book, Haykin quotes Patrick scholar E.A. Thompson: “[Patrick’s name] is more widely known throughout the world than the names of Jerome and Augustine and even Constantine the Great.”
So it is that in today’s culture this minor church father is more famous than most any other figure from the Patristic era. Though Patrick is famous, the man is hardly known at all. Celebrated in American culture as a national symbol of the Irish, associated with Emerald green, Guinness, and parades, and by the Irish Catholic Church rather differently as the saint who drove out all the snakes and performed astounding miracles, the story of the actual man seems completely obscured.
Patrick deserves to be well known, but for completely different reasons. Ironically, Patrick frequently described himself as “uneducated”, ministering to his flock as a bishop in the pagan countryside of Ireland,“at the edge of the world”. He would have balked at both the mystical hagiography built up by the Roman church and the commercialized parody of him cultivated by Irish-Americans. The Apostle Paul sets a precedent for the field of biography when he wrote: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” We should imitate and be encouraged by this godly saint, but in order to do so, we must peel back several layers of legend, and be edified by the more ordinary life he led.
This paper will narrate the life and theology of Saint Patrick. This author has used as a basis two excellent biographies, a short one written by Michael A.G. Haykin and a longer one by Philip Freeman. Frequent use is also made of the only reliable source material we have about Patrick’s life: His Confessions, and his Letter to Coroticus. We will say more about these documents later. We will look at the Romano-British and Celtic contexts of his upbringing and ministry, his work amongst the Irish, theology, and finally, how he should be remembered and imitated by us.
In A.D. 410, the world ended. At least, at the time, that’s what many Roman and Christian writers thought! In 410 the Visigothic King Alaric sacked Rome, bringing an end to the already weakened Empire. However, in Britannia, where Patrick lived, nobody really even noticed. The area had been abandoned by the Romans years ago, as troops were recalled to more important border areas, and the Romano-British, those who were culturally Celtic but who self-identified as Roman, were left to fend for themselves. One of the groups these British Romans would have to fight off were the Irish. Similar to the Saxon Vikings, bands of raiding Irish “pirates” would molest the coasts of Britain, and now that the Roman fleet had withdrawn, their work was easier than ever. Their principal goal was to take British slaves back to Ireland, where they could be sold to work the farms and herds. Young men made the best slaves, since they would be more malleable to their new life, yet strong and healthy. Patrick was taken by one such band at the age of fifteen. He worked as a slave in Ireland for six years, after which he escaped and made it back to his native Britain. Astoundingly, he went back to the land that enslaved him in order to evangelize the pagan Irish there. He ministered as a Bishop for many years, dying around 460 A.D.
His use of Latin and self identification as a “Roman” place him in the upper classes of the Romano-British social hierarchy. The fact that his father was a deacon in the church confirms his status further.
One misconception we might have about the culture in fourth-century Britain was that it was similar to the pagan, Germanic type of culture. However, we should think of it as Roman, especially in terms of Patrick’s world. Since the Island had been invaded by Roman legions under Emperor Claudius in A.D. 43, Roman soldiers had been given farming estates as a reward for their service, and slowly, the “Patrician” class of Britain became more and more Roman as these soldiers intermarried with the local population. Certainly, the culture among the poorer classes remained more distinctly Celtic, but Patrick’s world, shaped as it was by his upper-class status, was different.
The culture, then, can be thought of as a mixture of British and Greco-Roman. This fact has implication for his education. The Romans proudly assimilated Greek culture into their society, and the upper classes eagerly hired Greek slaves to tutor their children. Patrick would have received a similar “classical” education that began at age seven and continued until adulthood, following the “trivium” model that stressed learning grammar, then literature and logic, and then rhetoric. Patrick would have learned to read and write Latin, and then to read and recite Latin poetry, and finally, around age fifteen, to master the art of rhetoric. Rhetoric was all-important for an upper class roman, since it taught one how to argue in court and speak well. Philip Freeman writes: “To a young man with any hope of a public life of government service, military leadership, or a role in the Christian Church, this level of training was essential.” Patrick never received this crucial stage of instruction, however, since he was kidnapped at age fifteen. We can see his crude latin style that reflects his lack of education, even as he writes about it in his confession:
...I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open. For I am unable to explain my mind to learned people by using words incisively, as they do–such as my mind and soul would like, spitting it out in so many words to make sense of my innermost meaning.
Although Patrick considered himself “unlearned” in formal education, he certainly possessed a keen knowledge of the Latin Scriptures, which any reader of either his Confessions or Letter to Coroticus note. Both works are simply saturated with references, quotes, and allusions to Biblical texts. Haykin quotes Malcom Lambert here: ‘at the heart of the Confessio lies a sophisticated mosaic of scriptural texts and references deployed with great skill’.
The biggest event in his early life came when he was taken by Irish pirates from his home in Briton. Reflecting on this event fifty years later in his Confession, he writes:
...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.
Rather than being angry at God for allowing him to be captured, he bemoans the fact that he, who had had the gospel preached to him, ignored its message in his youth. He interprets his captivity as a result of this. The Patrick scholar R.P.C. Hanson sees evidence of echoes of Isaiah and Jeremiah in his writing here, as if Patrick is linking his captivity to the exile of Israel because of unbelief. As we noted earlier, Patrick knew his latin Bible inside and out, and he regularly makes comparison from his own life to various stories in the Old and New Testaments. Though we might quibble with his readiness to allegorize, we should also desire to know our Bibles as he knew his.
Patrick tells us that this time away from home, enduring the hardship of captivity and toil, was also used by God to turn him to the gospel:
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.
After six years, Patrick had a vision where he heard a voice saying: “soon you will depart from your home country.” he escaped from his captors, traveled hundreds of miles from inland to the coast, and found a ship that would take him back to his hometown of Britain. He was finally reunited with his family, but tells us that he received another vision telling him that he must “walk among us [the Irish] again.” He spent some time in Britain and possibly Gaul getting some training, having decided to go back to Ireland to minister among the pagans there.
There is debate among scholars as to where he spent this time, and what church ended up electing him Bishop and sending him to Ireland. In his Confession, Patrick mentions that a childhood friend had betrayed him by telling his elders of a childhood sin he had committed. We aren’t told what this sin was, but it bad enough to be brought up after nearly thirty years of time. Patrick took sin seriously, and writes of that time that he was “humbled every day” by the sin.
This particular trial faced, he was commissioned to Ireland. His actual ministry, roughly from 430-460, is quite different from later fantastical legends about him. Patrick records the usual duties of a faithful 5th century Bishop: baptizing converts and negotiating with tribal chieftains, which often included giving them money. Most scholars reckon this money came from Patrick’s own fortune. Although a humble ministry, it seems to have been a successful one. Patrick mentions that “thousands” were converted by his ministry, including tribal chieftans (rulers of the most basic and important political unit in Ireland). It seems that Patrick targeted the leaders of these tribes in order to gain influence over their people. He notably mentions, though, the “worship of filthy things” these people were converted from. Though eager to work with the political rulers of these Irish, he was having none of their pagan religion. Haykin writes: “On occasions when Patrick was directly confronted by Irish customs that were clearly antithetical to the gospel, he refused to have anything to do with them.”
Part of the foundation for Patricks theology is a credal statement included in his Confession. It is very similar to the Nicene Creed, and obviously does not come from his hand, but serves as an influence of his theology. It begins with a clear statement of Trinitarian theology. He also stresses about God: “In whom all things began, whose are all things,” Both here and later, Patrick stresses the providence and sovereignty of God, who knew him before he was born, who used him and his captivity to bring him to himself, and who “Watched over me before I knew him...and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.” Patrick confesses the full deity of the son, over and against the Arian sentiments popular among the Germanic tribes in nearby Gaul during that period.
Probably most notably, Patrick’s motivation and passion for the Irish mission is grounded on his belief that God was using him to help usher in the end of the world, which he believed was coming once the gospel had been preached to the whole earth. He writes:
Whatever happens to me, be it good or evil, I ought always to accept it and give thanks to God, who showed me that I can trust him always without any doubts, and who must have heard my prayer so that I, however ignorant I was, in the last days dared to undertake such a holy and wonderful work—thus imitating somehow those who, as the Lord once foretold, would preach his Gospel for a testimony to all nations before the end of the world. So we have seen it, and so it has been fulfilled: indeed, we are witnesses that the Gospel has been preached unto those parts beyond which there lives nobody.
Patrick knew the import of the prophetic word of Matthew 24:14 that, before the end of time, the gospel would be preached to the ends of the earth. And since, as he believed, he had been involved in the evangelization of those who inhabited the edge of the world, then Christ must be returning soon.
Another final note about Patrick’s theology is his sense of judgement and “polemical” attitude. This comes out most forcefully in this Letter to Coroticus. It seems that a Romano-British Warlord had raided Patrick’s area and taken (just as he had been taken years earlier!) several of his new converts “still in their white robes” to be slaves. He had even killed some of them. Patrick wrote a scathing letter rebuking Coroticus and telling him, through a blistering barrage of Scripture verses, that he had made himself “a citizen of hell” rather than a Roman citizen.
His blatant transgressions had made him an enemy of the gospel. Nevertheless, Patrick wrote that he “pitied” Coroticus, and pleaded with him that he, even at this late hour, to “make things right with God.” Even though Patrick was angry at Coroticus, and considered him outside the faith because of his actions, not outside of the reach of the gospel. At the same time, he writes about his faithful “children” the warlord had killed, as if consoling them: “And those of my children who were murdered–I weep for you, I weep for you. But I also rejoice in my spirit because my work in Ireland was not in vain.” Thus we can see the pastoral heart that is both tender and loving towards his sheep, and protective and angry when they are taken. And at the same time, sharing the gospel with the wolf who took them!
By all accounts, Patrick died in Ireland around 460 A.D. Nobody knows where he is buried, and his two letters, Freeman writes, were never well known during the saint’s life, and in fact, “It is a miracle they survived at all.”
Partially due to the century between his death and when he began to be venerated as a great saint, much of the lore surrounding him is not tied to his actual life. A significant “Patrick” manuscript, that is, a document that is attributed to him but likely composed a century after his death–still tells us much about his legacy. It is called “the Breastplate of Patrick”:
I rise today,
with a mighty power, calling on the Trinity,
with a belief in the threeness,
with a faith in the oneness
of the creator of creation
I summon today all those powers to protect me
against every cruel force which may attack my body and soul
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me.
One can see the attention to nature, and the need for protection by Christ. This makes sense, given the rural area Patrick ministered in, and the Celtic paganism which associated evil spirits with nature. The later writer of this hymn is also stressing the Nicene faith and trinitarianism that Patrick held to.
And so we end this study of Patrick’s life where we began: At the intersection of his two identities: The man and the myth. For Christians, the man is far more edifying.
We should praise Patrick, not because he was without sin, as later myths attempted to imply, but because he had a keen awareness of his sinfulness, and took seriously sins committed even as a young man. His writings are saturated with humility and a sense of dependance on God.
We should praise Patrick, not because he chased out all the of the snakes from Ireland, or called down balls of fire on his enemies, but because he firmly believed in the sovereign God who had control over creation and would protect him from the wildness of the Irish north.
We should praise Patrick, not because he overcame any and all trials, but because he went through many trials himself, from being kidnapped, to having accusations brought against him, to having his converts kidnapped, murdered, to ministering “at the edge of the world”, constantly relying on God to sustain him through all those trials.
We should praise Patrick, not because he was rich, but because he willingly gave up his status as a member of the Roman upper class, as well as his family fortune, in order to propagate the gospel message.
We should praise Patrick, not because he was an intellectual giant, but because he was a “man unius libri” and his letters are saturated with Scripture, evidence that he himself was saturated with God’s Word.
Lastly, we should praise Patrick because he believed that God loved the pagan Irish and that it was his duty to go and love them as well, even though it would take him to the end of the world. Augustine is regarded by many as one of the last of the “fathers”, but Patrick represents a fitting transition as well. Brian Litfin writes: “Patrick represents the natural next step as the Christian religion continued its journey from the ancient culture of its origin to the global faith it is today.”
As the Apostle Paul said, we should imitate him as he imitates Christ. So should we imitate Patrick, not the fantastic worker of miracles, but the faithful, biblical, humble Bishop of Ireland.
Freeman, Philip. St. Patrick of Ireland: a Biography. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Hanson, R. P. C. The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick. New York, New York: Seabury Press, 1983.
Haykin, Michael A. G. Patrick of Ireland: His Life & Impact. Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2017.
———. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Wheaton, Illinios: Crossway, 2011.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (ESV), Containing the Old and New Testaments. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011.
Lambert, Malcolm. Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2010.
Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: an Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.
Patrick. The Confession of St. Patrick: and, Letter to Coroticus. Translated by John Skinner. New York, New York: Image, 1998.
“Saint Patrick's Day.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed November 2, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saint-Patricks-Day.