The Roman Empire in the West was crumbling. In A.D. 383, the leaders of Rome made a strategic decision. They would give up on Britian, the homeland of Patrick, and leave them to their fate.
The results were inevitable. The poorer nations around Britain invaded and took land, treasures, and slaves. When Irish marauders landed on the beach of Western Britain, they demolished Patrick’s town, stole all they could, and took Patrick captive as a slave back to Ireland.*
There, Patrick had a terrible life. He was cold, lonely, and isolated as he watched over his master’s sheep. Patick’s parents raised him in a Christian home. He knew the faith of his fathers but had not made it his own. In captivity, he cried out to the Lord and found comfort and solace in a newfound relationship with Christ.
One day, he believed he heard a voice telling him that his ship was ready. He walked around 200 miles to the coast. There, he joined some traders headed for the European mainland.
Once Patrick returned to the Empire, he trained to be a minister of the Christian faith. Eventually, he returned to Britain. There, he made a rather remarkable decision. He would go back to Ireland to tell them about his faith and urge them to turn to the one, true God.
This was no easy task. The Irish were not asking him to come. They were a warlike people who had no qualms about pillaging towns and enslaving people. When Patrick went, he was often in danger and had to pay the Irish chieftans for safe conduct through their lands.
What would drive Patrick to do this? Somewhere along the line, Patrick had taken into his heart the command of Jesus, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20a). He believed that Jesus had commanded His followers to make disciples of every nation.
He not only believed that God wanted him to go, he also wholeheartedly trusted the promise of Matthew 28:20, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He would not go alone. This sentiment is commemorated in his famous “breastplate” or prayer: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me; Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me . . .” This expressed his confidence and trust in the power and presence of the Triune God as he stepped forward into the uncertainty of his missionary endeavor.
Even though he did not know how it all would work out, he was optimistic that these efforts would be successful. He had in his mind the promises of the Old Testament such as, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6, compare this to what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 15). Patrick explains this in his “Confession,” which you can download here or read online here.
The point is that Patrick believed in a mission that was more important than his own peace, safety, or comfort. God blessed his efforts, and Patrick had tremendous success as a missionary, essentially turning the entire island of Ireland from paganism to Christianity.
He concluded his “Confession” by encouraging others to take up the same vision:
Now I have given a simple account to my brethren and fellow servants who have believed me because of what I said and still say in order to strengthen and confirm your faith. Would that you, too, would strive for greater things and do better! This will be my glory, for a wise son is the glory of his father.
His hope was that the new disciples would have the same vision for mission that he did and do even more.
Thomas Cahill in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization continued the story. The Irish sent missionaries to Scotland and the pagan conquerors of Britain. They also became the main preservers of the literature of the Roman world passing it on to future generations. This only stopped with the Viking invasions several centuries later, but, by then, other monasteries throughout Europe had taken up the work.
It all started with Saint Patrick’s vision. He believed that God could and would change the world through him and through anyone who would get that same vision. Cahill’s story tells us that many of the Irish did just that.
This also tells us what we should take away from Saint Patrick’s Day. Patrick wanted all those who read of his example to have a vision that would lead them to “strive for greater things and do better!” My hope is that the example of Patrick and the Irish will inspire you to do just that.
*For another telling of his story, see Mary Cagney’s article Christianity Today’s Christian History magazine. You can read the article here. This article was helpful to me in preparing this article.