Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Story Behind Saint Patrick

The Story Behind Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick is the patron of Ireland and Irish people, but he himself was not born Irish. Patrick probably grew up being called Patricius, the Latin version of his name. He was born in what is today England, which had been part of the Roman Empire. Christianity had reached those lands long before, possibly in the first generation after Christ. Ireland, on the other hand, had never been part of the Roman world, and so travel to it was more difficult. Very few missionaries had attempted to make the trip, and any who had done so had little success.

Patrick was an unlikely person to change that, but of course, Saint Paul was an unlikely person to be sent to preach to Greek cities. God uses who He will, in His own time and way, if people answer. In Patrick's case, the story started when he was captured by Irish raiders at age 16. He was sold as a slave and worked in Ireland as a shepherd for one of the many minor kings who ruled different parts of the island. Before his capture, Patrick said he was not sure he believed in God, and he did not think much of the clergy he had known as a child. But sitting on an Irish hillside watching sheep, he began to pray. Patrick, who started praying barely believing it would do any good, soon developed a personal relationship with Christ.

When Patrick finally returned to England, in about the year 407, he said he was able to escape his slavery only through Divine intervention - a vision that told him to go, passage on a ship, and miraculous provision of food are all part of the story. He initially returned home to his parents, but one night had a vision where the voice of the Irish called him to come back and share with them the relationship with Christ he had discovered. He then went to Gaul to study, and eventually, he received from the church the mission he believed God had called him to - missionary to the Irish. He was ordained a bishop and sent into Ireland.

Many stories are told about Saint Patrick. He is said to have lit the traditional Easter fire even though it was against the decree of a local Irish king, saying it was more important to honor Christ's resurrection. He wrote two letters which survive to this day, the better known of which is called simply the Confession of Patrick. One story tells that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. There were no literal snakes in Ireland, but he did drive out the worship of false gods. Another story tells that Patrick used the shamrock or three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity. While that particular example may or may not be true, Patrick must have been an amazing preacher and teacher. He converted and baptized thousands, established dozens of churches and monasteries, and trained other to lead the churches. The many Irish monks who followed his example were the first missionaries to many other peoples who had never heard the Gospel before. In the wars the ended the Roman Empire, much of early Christian civilization was destroyed. Ireland, untouched by those conflicts, was one of the few places in Europe where study of Scripture and the Church fathers continued, and missionaries following Patrick's example carried it back into the war-torn continent. In this way, the people Patrick trained and motivated saved Western civilization from dying off completely.

March 17th is celebrated as Saint Patrick's Day because it is the day he died, probably in the year 460, but possibly later. Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral, Down County, Ireland. Patrick is honored as the Apostle to the Irish. Because he obeyed the mission God gave him, he was able to change Ireland from the land of raiders and slave traders, into the land known for centuries after as the island of saints and scholars.

By Matt Heffron

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