I will not presume to educate anyone on the subject of Saint Patrick because there are real scholars about who know what’s what with much greater sophistication and depth than I.
I will admit up front that my views of Patrick are informed by little more than the account in How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill and some aimless internet reading, but my reading does include blogs by those deeper scholars of Patrick’s history.
To my mind, Patrick is a real life hero, one of the most remarkable evangelists on record, and a wildly successful social reformer.
We have his history in his own hand. And although it is not comprehensive, scholars have filled in the gaps with fair certainty. The high points:
Patrick was a young Roman Briton in the 4th century from an aristocratic family. He was kidnapped by raiders from Ireland and enslaved there for several years. He herded animals on lonely hills. In the depth of his despondency, he heard from God, who told him to get up and walk to the coast. He obeyed, and departed for home on a ship.
Patrick returned to his family changed, and began to pursue a study of his faith. Some time later, he heard from his God once more. He told him to return to Ireland and bring the good news to his former enslavers.
The fearsome gods of the Irish still required human sacrifice. Slavery and tribal warfare were a way of life.
But, as Patrick’s ministry showed, the people of Ireland were ready to move away from their horrific pagan masters and prepared for faith in the True God. Very quickly, and directly because of Patrick’s preaching of the Christian gospel, the human slave trade ended and human sacrifice became unthinkable.
From How the Irish Saved Civilization:
We can put away our knives and abandon our altars. These are no longer required. The God of the Three Faces has given us his own Son, and we are washed clean in the blood of this lamb. God does not hate us; he loves us. Greater love than this no man has than that he should lay down his life for his friends. That is what God’s Word, made flesh, did for us.
Patrick lived with the Irish, becoming one of them, for the rest of his long life. He shared the truth of God in their way, in their love-language, respecting their cultural context.
Whether you believe his account of messages from God or not, you have to credit a man who chose to return to those who had robbed him of his youthful home and made him a slave, so that he could commit his life to their benefit. He loved (verb) his enemies. He was a truly noble man.
And what do we do to mark St. Patrick’s memory? We make up fables about snakes and clovers. We give him magic tricks instead of giving him honor and God glory.
We decorate with cute mythical creatures and yucky green.
We dress in green T-shirts and load onto buses early in the daylight which stop at successive bar after bar and emerge late into the night drunk as skunks. We give ourselves excuse to drink for a solid week.
Patrick deserves better.