The man we call St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain around 385 as Maewyn Succat. Two of his original letters survive: his Confessio and his Epistola ad Coroticum, the latter being notable for making him, in Thomas Cahill’s words “the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery” (How The Irish Saved Civilization, page 114).
At 16 he was captured in a slave raid and taken to Ireland where he was sold to a Druid chieftain. For the next six years Patrick labored as a shepherd.
Although Patrick was raised in a Christian family, he had not truly believed in Jesus. His slavery gave him time to reflect on life, and as he explained, “the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son” (Confessio 2).
Patrick’s devotion to Christ intensified, “More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time. And it was there of course that one night in my sleep I heard a voice saying to me: ‘You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’” (Confessio 16–17).
After receiving this vision, Patrick fled 200 miles to the coast and found a ship preparing for a sea voyage. He journeyed back to his homeland, experiencing miraculous guidance and provision along the way.
After living at home for a few years Patrick had another vision, “I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’, and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’ And I was stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more, and thus I awoke.” (Confessio 23)
So Patrick obediently returned to Ireland. As before, he was a slave. But this time he was a slave of Christ. His mission to Ireland brought fierce opposition from the Irish Druids. He faced them with great faith: “Daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises. But I fear nothing, because of the promises of Heaven; for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who reigns everywhere.” (Confessio 55)
Eventually, tradition tells us, Patrick found himself debating the Druid leaders before an Irish king. The debate was rancorous, and at one point the Druids began attacking the doctrine of the Trinity. Patrick plucked a three-leaved clover and asked them whether it was one or three. The Druids had no answer, and this debate was pivotal in persuading the king to convert to Christianity.
By the end of his life, Patrick had planted over 700 churches and trained around 1,000 ministers. One third of the tribes of Ireland became Christian through his ministry. He thus ranks as one of the greatest missionaries in history, and became known as the one who “found Ireland all heathen and left it all Christian.”
If you want to learn more, you should read his Confessio – it’s only 62 verses long and is available many places online (at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, at Robot Wisdom, and at the Catholic Information Network, to pick three).
And so remember – St. Patrick’s Day is about far more than green beer and pinching people. It’s about honoring one of the most effective ministers of all time.