Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here is a brief history of the holiday found at Christianity Today with vintage St. Patrick’s Day Postcards that I love intermixed. For the full write up go here. Enjoy and have a wonderful Saint Patrick’s Day!
Christian History of St. Patrick’s Day
Patricius, better known as Patrick, is remembered today as the saint who drove the snakes out of Ireland, the teacher who used the shamrock to explain the Trinity, and the namesake of annual parades in New York and Boston. What is less well-known is that Patrick was a humble missionary (this saint regularly referred to himself as “a sinner”) of enormous courage. When he evangelized Ireland, he set in motion a series of events that impacted all of Europe. It all started when he was carried off into slavery around 430.
Escape from sin and slavery
Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose opponents’ heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master’s pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger and thirst. Worst of all, he was isolated from other human beings for months at a time. Early missionaries to Britain had left a legacy of Christianity that young Patrick was exposed to and took with him into captivity. He had been a nominal Christian to this point; he now turned to the Christian God of his fathers for comfort.
“I would pray constantly during the daylight hours,” he later recalled. “The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.”
After six years of slavery, Patrick received a supernatural message. “You do well to fast,” a mysterious voice said to him. “Soon you will return to your homeland.”
Before long, the voice spoke again: “Come and see, your ship is waiting for you.” So Patrick fled and ran 200 miles to a southeastern harbor. There he boarded a ship of traders, probably carrying Irish wolfhounds to the European continent.
After a three-day journey, the men landed in Gaul (modern France), where they found only devastation. Goths or Vandals had so decimated the land that no food was to be found in the once fertile area.
“What have you to say for yourself, Christian?” the ship’s captain taunted. “You boast that your God is all powerful. We’re starving to death, and we may not survive to see another soul.”
Patrick answered confidently. “Nothing is impossible to God. Turn to him and he will send us food for our journey.”
At that moment, a herd of pigs appeared, “seeming to block our path.” Though Patrick instantly became “well regarded in their eyes,” his companions offered their new-found food in sacrifice to their pagan gods.
Patrick did not partake.
The prodigious son returns
Many scholars believe Patrick then spent a period training for ministry in Lerins, an island off the south of France near Cannes. But his autobiographical Confession includes a huge gap after his escape from Ireland. When it picks up again “after a few years,” he is back in Britain with his family.
It was there that Patrick received his call to evangelize Ireland—a vision like the apostle Paul’s at Troas, when a Macedonian man pleaded, “Help us!”
“I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland,” Patrick wrote. “His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And as I began to read these words, I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut … and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”
Despite his reputation, Patrick wasn’t really the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. Pope Celestine I sent a bishop named Palladius to the island in 431 (about the time Patrick was captured as a slave). Some scholars believe that Palladius and Patrick are one and the same individual, but most believe Palladius was unsuccessful (possibly martyred) and Patrick was sent in his place.
In any event, paganism was still dominant when Patrick arrived on the other side of the Irish Sea. “I dwell among gentiles,” he wrote, “in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshipers of idols, and of unclean things.”
Patrick concentrated the bulk of his missionary efforts on the country’s one hundred or so tribal kings. If the king became a Christian, he reasoned, the people would too. This strategy was a success.
As kings converted, they gave their sons to Patrick in an old Irish custom for educating and “fostering” (Patrick, for his part, held up his end by distributing gifts to these kings). Eventually, the sons and daughters of the Irish were persuaded to become monks and nuns.
From kingdom to kingdom (Ireland did not yet have towns), Patrick worked much the same way. Once he converted a number of pagans, he built a church. One of his new disciples would be ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop, and left in charge. If the chieftain had been gracious enough to grant a site for a monastery as well as a church, it was built too and functioned as a missionary station.
Before departing, Patrick gave the new converts (or their pastors) a compendium of Christian doctrine and the canons (rules).
Despite his success as a missionary, Patrick was self-conscious, especially about his educational background. “I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open,” he wrote in his Confession. “For I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.”
Nevertheless, he gives thanks to God, “who stirred up me, a fool, from the midst of those who are considered wise and learned in the practice of the law as well as persuasive in their speech and in every other way and ahead of these others, inspired me who is so despised by the world.”
Over and over again, Patrick wrote that he was not worthy to be a bishop. He wasn’t the only one with doubts. At one point, his ecclesiastical elders in Britain sent a deputation to investigate his mission. A number of concerns were brought up, including a rash moment of (unspecified) sin from his youth.
His Confession, in fact, was written in response to this investigation. Reeling from accusations, Patrick drew strength from God: “Indeed he bore me up, though I was trampled underfoot in such a way. For although I was put down and shamed, not too much harm came to me.”
If Patrick was not confident about his own shortcomings, he held a deep sense of God’s intimate involvement in his life. “I have known God as my authority, for he knows all things even before they are done,” he wrote. “He would frequently forewarn me of many things by his divine response.”
Indeed, Patrick recorded eight dreams he regarded as personal messages from God. And scattered throughout his Confession are tributes to God’s goodness to him: “Tirelessly, I thank my God, who kept me faithful on the day I was tried, so that today I might offer to him, the Lord Jesus Christ, the sacrifice of my soul. He saved me in all dangers and perils . …So, whatever may come my way, good or bad, I equally tackle it, always giving thanks to God.”
According to the Irish annals, Patrick died in 493, when he would have been in his seventies. But we do not know for sure when, where, or how he died. Monasteries at Armagh, Downpatrick, and Saul have all claimed his remains. His feast day is recorded as early as March 17, 797, with the annotation; “The flame of a splendid sun, the apostle of virginal Erin [Ireland], may Patrick with many thousands be the shelter of our wickedness.”
It is difficult to separate fact from fiction in the stories of Patrick’s biographers. It is historically clear, however, that Patrick was one of the first great missionaries who brought the gospel beyond the boundaries of Roman civilization. According to tradition, he had established bishops throughout northern, central, and eastern Ireland. Only Munster, in the south, was to remain pagan until a century after Patrick’s death.
Patrick was the ultimate model for Celtic Christians. He engaged in continuous prayer. He was enraptured by God and loved sacred Scripture. He also had a rich poetic imagination with the openness to hear God in dreams and visions and a love of nature and the created.
He is, then, most worthy of the appellation saint, as one “set apart” for a divine mission. As such, he became an inspiring example. Hundreds of Celtic monks, in emulation of Patrick, left their homeland to spread the gospel to Scotland, England, and continental Europe.
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