Who was this guy, often comically depicted in commercials and advertisements wearing a green hat, smoking a long-stemmed pipe and shown with a four leafed clover next to a pot of gold? The holiday honoring him, which is celebrated again in a few days with parades of people dressed and even a river died in green. For many people Saint Patrick is only a mythical figure, maybe ranking with another “jolly good fellow” dressing in red.
But there was a real Saint Patrick! He was born around A.D. 390 to a middle-class Christian family in Roman Britain. When he was a teenager, marauding Irish raiders attacked his home, captured him and took him to Ireland where he was sold to a landowner as a slave. During his long and lonely existence, he prayed constantly and then felt himself surrounded by the love of God. In this harsh setting, Patrick’s life was transformed through faith in Jesus Christ. He eventually escaped, returned to Britain and became a priest and later a bishop. Then thirty years after Patrick fled Ireland, he had the strange sense that God was calling him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
The Irish of the fifth century were known throughout Europe as unusually violent, barbaric people, who frequently practiced human sacrifice. By returning to Ireland, Patrick understood that dangers awaited him. He wrote:
“I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved—whatever may come my way. But I am not afraid of any of these things because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.”
Patrick devoted 30 years of his life to these “warrior children” so that they might ‘seize the everlasting kingdom of God’ with all the energy and intensity they had devoted to enslaving and killing each others. His genuine love for the Irish was evident in his writings. He constantly was concerned for his people, not just for their spiritual but also their physical welfare.
Patrick’s missionary work succeeded beyond his dreams. Countless people gave their lives to Christ and as a result Irish society was transformed. Within Patrick’s lifetime or soon after his death the Irish slave trade came to a halt and other forms of violence such as murder and tribal warfare decreased. His followers lived faithful, courageous and generous lives, showing that the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society.
Patrick’s life shows that God can dramatically transform an entire bloodthirsty and warlike culture such as fifth-century Ireland through the obedience and the sacrifice of a single person.
I hope we can re-capture the real meaning of why Saint Patrick is to be honored. His life and legacy can give us hope that our society can be transformed as well. That is if you and I, having received new life through Jesus Christ are willing to serve God and our neighbor with the same abandon and dedication.