St. Patrick looms vaguely in our cultural consciousness, mostly because his commemoration became secularized. He has become an icon of Irish nationalism, even though he himself was not Irish, and many myths attached themselves to his work, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction. Patrick, however, provides an example of missionary fervor worthy of imitation in our day, especially when considering his hardships, the dangers he faced, and the life he left behind in order to be a worthy servant of Christ.
Philip Freeman sketches an easy to read picture of Patrick’s life, especially since Patrick himself left only two writings that have survived to the present day. Most of Freeman’s book details the background necessary to understand Patrick’s work. Freeman directs interested readers to further resources on early Britain and Ireland at the end, though his own treatment is wholly sufficient for even the most casual reader, and he includes a translation of Patrick’s two letters as well. Freeman occasionally colors his presentation in ways I cannot endorse, but even his personal foibles do not detract from an otherwise informative book.
Patrick was born in a wealthy Roman and Christian family in late fourth century Britain. He struggled with faith in his youth, committing some unnamed sin which would haunt him for the rest of his life. While he was still young, however, slavers caught Patrick and carried him away to Ireland, where he labored as a slave for six years. This enslavement had two effects: it deprived him of a formal education, which meant that his command of the Latin language remained halting throughout his life; but it also drove him to rely on the Lord. In the fires of tribulation, God shaped Patrick into a servant who would suffer much on behalf of His name.
After six years, he managed to escape and returned to Britain to be reunited with his family. However, Patrick knew that he could not stay. Contrary to all expectations, he knew that he had to return to the place of his slavery in order to be a servant of God. Leaving behind his family’s wealth and the security of Britain, Patrick became a priest and returned to Ireland around the year 432. There, amid the squabbling of the clan kings of Ireland and the opposition of the native druids, Patrick labored for many years. He was not the first Christian on the island, but few before or after him affected that land so profoundly.
Late in his life, a nominally Christian British chieftain named Coroticus captured and enslaved some of Patrick’s flock, some of whom had just been baptized at Easter. Deeply grieved, Patrick boldly wrote a letter to Coroticus, rebuking him harshly for his unchristian action (calling he and his men “citizens of hell”) and calling on him to repent. This letter is one of the two which has survived. Patrick’s concern for his people resonates throughout the letter, as well as his fearlessness in the face of adversity.
His action, however, enraged the British church. Who was Patrick, this rustic bishop of backwards Ireland, to encroach upon matters outside his authority? He should have left the matter to Coroticus’ own bishop, in their minds. They therefore called Patrick to stand judgment, and his famous Confession, the other work which has survived, served as his legal defense. In it, he described his own life and the work he had done in Ireland. Patrick is not apologetic for what he has done; rather, he defends his ministry through his broken Latin. His own words sum it up best: “I would write these words of my defense again and again if I could. I declare in truth and with joy in my heart–before God and his holy angels–that I have never had any motive in my work except preaching the good news and its promises. That is the only reason I returned here to Ireland–a place I barely escaped from alive.”
Patrick, therefore, serves as a fantastic example for our own day. Instead of fleeing Ireland forever, which he might have reasonably done after being a slave there, he returned with the aim of proclaiming the Gospel. Instead of looking for fame and renown, he labored long among the Irish despite opposition from pagan and sometimes fellow Christians alike. Instead of fearing men and harm to his own body or position, he feared the living God, proclaiming what is right as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.