Many celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th They wear green, pretend to be Irish, party, decorate with shamrocks and mythical creatures called leprechauns, but what about St. Patrick? Who is he and why do we celebrate his life on this day and in such a way?
“Patrick” was born Maewyn Succat (choosing to be known as Patricius later in life). He was born in Britain not Ireland in the fourth century A.D. Just before Patrick turned 16 years of age, he and his family were at their holiday villa by the sea, when Irish pirates attacked. Patrick’s family escaped, but Patrick and many of the family’s workers did not; and soon they were taken to Ireland, where Patrick was sold as a slave to Miliuc of Slemich, a Druid tribal chieftain.
Patrick was given the job of herding sheep. Although he was raised in a Christian home (his father was a deacon) Patrick never made a decision to follow Christ until after he was kidnapped and made a slave. Patrick wrote: “…the Lord opened my senses to my unbelief,’ so that though late in the day, I might remember my many sins; and accordingly ‘I might turn to the Lord my God with all my heart.” Patrick also wrote about how his faith in God grew as he prayed to Him while he shepherded the flocks: “But after l had come to Ireland, it was then that I was made to shepherd the flocks day after day, and, as l did so, I would pray all the time, right through the day. More and more the love of God and fear of him grew strong within me, and as my faith grew, so the Spirit became more and more active… In snow, in frost, in rain, I would hardly notice any discomfort, and I was never slack but always full of energy. It is clear to me now, that this was due to the Spirit within me.” Patrick’s devotion to God did not go unnoticed. He soon earned the nickname “Holy Boy” among his fellow slaves.
One night Patrick had a dream, and in it he heard a voice saying to him, “Soon you will be returning to your own country.” In another dream he was told, “Come and see where your ship is waiting for you.” At the age of 22, Patrick escaped and traveled 200 miles to the coast of Ireland where a ship did indeed wait for him. Patrick wrote: “I turned on my heel and ran away, leaving behind the man to whom I had been bound for six years. Yet I came away from him in the power of God, for it was He who was guiding my every step for the best. And so I felt not the least anxiety until I reached the ship”. The seaman scowled at him, so Patrick began to leave, but the man called back to him, saying the other men wanted him to board as a passenger. Patrick wrote. “In spite of this, I still hoped that they might come to have faith in Jesus Christ.”
The journey by ship was long, including a stop on land where they journeyed for 28 days. After having run out of food, the captain turned to Patrick and challenged him to ask his God for food. Glad to oblige, Patrick responded: “Turn trustingly to the Lord who is my God and put your faith in him with all your heart, because nothing is impossible to him. On this day, he will send us food sufficient for our journey, because for him there is abundance everywhere.” According to Patrick’s autobiography, when the men turned around, a herd of pigs was standing before them. They feasted for days and gave thanks to God.
Two years later Patrick finally made it to his beloved Britain and into the arms of his mother and father. Patrick began to settle back into his life in Britain and studied to become a priest and bishop. One night Patrick had a dream of a man who came from Ireland and was carrying a letter with the words “The Voice of the Irish.” As Patrick began to read the words, he heard the voice of the men he once worked with shouting, “Holy broth of a boy, we beg you, come back and walk once more among us.”
Patrick made plans to return to Ireland—the land of his captivity—but those plans were fiercely opposed by both his parents and the church leaders who did not think the Druids were worth saving. Of this opposition Patrick later wrote; “So at last I came here to the Irish gentiles to preach the gospel. And now I had to endure insults from unbelievers, to hear criticism of my journeys and suffer many persecutions, even to the point of chains.…And should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation, for his name…There was always someone talking behind my back and whispering, ‘Why does he want to put himself in such danger among his enemies who do not know God?’ ” Patrick even sold his title of nobility in order to serve the “barbaric nation.”
While Patrick was in Ireland, he shared the gospel with his former slave owner, Miliuc the Druid, but he refused to hear it and killed himself with fire. Patrick continued to spread the gospel across Ireland and taught the people how to read and write. He preached at racetracks and other places of worldly entertainment and saw many come to Christ. However, Patrick’s success was not without opposition. The Druids often tried to kill him. He was often ambushed at his evangelistic events, and it is noted that he was even enslaved again for a short time. Patrick even had to purchase safe passage through hostile lands in order to continue his gospel journeys. Patrick wrote, “As every day arrives, I expect either sudden death or deception or being taken back as a slave or some such other misfortune. But I fear none of these, since I look to the promise of heaven and have flung myself into the hands of the all-powerful God, who rules as Lord everywhere.”
Patrick journeyed throughout Ireland, sharing Christ until his death on March 17th, around the year 461 A.D. Later, Irish myths were created about Patrick and stories of leprechauns would creep into his holy day celebrations, as well as the symbol of the shamrock, believed to have been used by Patrick to illustrate the Trinity as he preached and taught. Some legends say Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. Since there are no snakes in Ireland and they often symbolize the devil and evil, many believe the “snakes” were a metaphor representing his work of driving the idol-worshiping Druid cult out of the country.
Enslavement, torture, imprisonment and death for one’s faith in Christ were not confined to Patrick’s lifetime. Today Christians in many nations are imprisoned or killed if caught sharing the gospel with fellow countrymen. We may never be enslaved, imprisoned or beaten because of our faith in Christ, but many may make fun of us for believing in Jesus’ promise of heaven and placing our faith in a God they do not see with their eyes and cannot touch with their hands. I pray this version of Patrick’s courageous life will inspire you to stand firm in Christ and stand strong for Him as you tell others about the greatest gift we can ever be given—salvation through Jesus!