Saint Patrick—the cheerful bearer of shamrocks and chaser of snakes—is America’s favorite, and quite possibly only, Irish saint.
From Chicago to New York to New Orleans, and in dozens more cities across the country, Irish Americans and those happy to pretend they are flock to parade routes to enjoy the annual exception to the church’s Lenten fast—St. Paddy’s Day.
Patrick himself would likely be somewhat mystified at the legend that has sprung up around his memory. He wasn’t even Irish. Born in Britain around 387, he was sixteen when he was stolen and enslaved by Irish marauders. While working for his master herding sheep, Patrick was drawn back to the faith of his family—his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest—and became a devoted follower of God. He wrote in his Confession, “More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved . . .”
Patrick credited God with coming to him in a dream to point him to a ship that would enable his return home. Though the coast was two hundred miles away, he traveled to the port and found a ship ready to take him. When they arrived in Britain only three days later, they embarked on a twenty-eight-day journey by land. They grew hungry as their food ran out, and the sailors turned on Patrick: “What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful—why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger?” Patrick answered by proclaiming God’s ability to provide, and a herd of pigs walked across their path.
St. Patrick’s Calling
Back in Britain, Patrick was reunited with his family and began his studies anew. Sometime later (records are sketchy—we don’t know how much later), he dreamed that a man brought him letters from Ireland, in which the people he had left “called out as it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’” From then on, he determined to return to Ireland to share the gospel of Christ with them.
His parents and friends, however, opposed his plan to return to Ireland. “Why does he put himself in danger among hostile people who do not know God?” they wondered. Patrick understood that they feared for him and wondered himself how qualified he could be. “I was just an unlearned country person,” he admitted.
But his call from God proved greater than family pressure, insecurity, and lack of training.
When the time was right, he returned to Ireland where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote, “I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises.”
Shamrocks and Snakes
The feeding of the sailors during Patrick’s return to England is the only miracle-turned-legend based on his own words. We learn this story straight from his pen. So where did the idea originate that Patrick used shamrocks, the common three-leaf clover, to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to local pagans? We don’t know who started that rumor, but we do know that Patrick was profoundly shaped by his trinitarian faith. In his Confession, he wrote:
There is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father . . . And his son, Jesus Christ . . . Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God . . . He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality . . . This is the one we acknowledge and adore—one God in a Trinity of the sacred name.
And those snakes? Ireland has never had snakes—yet another reason we love the Emerald Isle—but they were sacred to the local Druids. The closest explanation for the legend we can get is to see it as an allegory: When Patrick brought faith in Christ, he drove out the Druids and their pagan influence.
St. Patrick’s Legacy
For decades, Patrick taught the pagan peoples of Ireland about the one true God. In the two documents still in existence written by his hand, we discover a humble man who remained grateful for God’s grace in his life. He was resilient, standing firm amid suffering, adversity, false accusations, betrayals, and more. Strengthened by his robust trust in God, Patrick the pastor loved his flock loyally. Writing his Confession late in life, he addressed a wide audience:
You all know, and God knows, how I have lived among you since my youth, in true faith and in sincerity of heart. Towards the pagan people too among whom I live, I have lived in good faith, and will continue to do so . . . I have cast myself into the hands of almighty God, who is the ruler of all places.
Patrick died March 17, 461. Saints of the church are historically celebrated on the anniversary of their death, rather than their birth, an acknowledgment that death was the “birthday” of their eternal life. Patrick graduated from life to life.
As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, let’s remember the man behind the myth, a humble and caring pastor whose faith in God and love for people impacted a nation for generations.
*All quotes are taken from Saint Patrick’s Confession.
Questions for Reflection:
- How well do you know God? What’s stopping you from diving into the Bible to better learn about the immensity of his majesty and the power of his sacrificial love?
- What kinds of obstacles have you faced in your quest to obey God’s call on your life? How can Patrick’s example inspire you to persevere?
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