Read the introduction to this series – 50 people you need to know: Church History 101.
While millions of people around the world “celebrate” him every March, most have no idea who he was or what he did. St. Patrick has become a patron saint of wearing green, not getting pinched and drinking until you throw up.
In reality Patrick (c. 387 – c. 460), whose birth name was Maewyn Succat (I’d probably want to go by “Patrick,” too), was a slave turned missionary who used innovative methods to spread the gospel among an unreached people group. A passion for Jesus and church planting – that’s his real legacy.
Since our culture recognizes the name, but knows next to nothing about him, Patrick is someone you really should know.
Who was Patrick?
Maewyn Succat, before he was known as Patrick, lived a normal life in England, until he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16 and taken as a slave to Ireland. There, he tended the flocks of a Druid chieftain surrounded by the strange religious practices of the islanders, while learning the Celtic language.
Despite his being away from his family and those who could encourage him in the Christian faith, Maewyn, who had been unconcerned with Christianity previously, began to follow Christ. Even though he was captured and sold into slavery, even though he was in a strange land with strange gods, Maewyn still followed Jesus.
Six years later, he was able to escape from his life as a slave and make it back to his homeland. In England, he would be educated in the church and become a preist under St. Germain, a bishop. However, he began to feel a burning desire to go back to the land where he had once been a slave. He wanted to take the gospel to those who were worshiping creation and false gods.
After telling Germain of his thoughts, the bishop recommended Maewyn to the pope. After traveling to Rome, Pope Celestine agreed to let Maewyn return to Ireland to teach God’s word. Before Maewyn left, the pope gave him the name “Patritius” or Patrick, derived from two Latin words meaning the father of his people.
He was not the first missionary there, but Palladius, who had been sent five years earlier, had not been very successful. Patrick was able to use his experience in their culture and with their language to see more progress.
The Christian faith was still a difficult thing for them to grasp. Searching around, as legend has it, Maewyn stumbled upon an illustration that he could use to explain how God exited in three Persons. Pointing at a clover, Maewyn showed how the three leaves were still one. They were distinct, but united. God was three distinct Persons (Father, Son and Spirit), but yet one Being.
Maewyn was able to reach the islanders with the gospel, despite being beaten, robbed and threatened with death. His work paved the way for Ireland to become one of the centers of European Christianity. Today, the island is predominately Christian and has been the site of numerous revivals and home to influential Christian leaders.
At his death, reportedly on March 17, 460, Patrick had spent decades ministering to the Celtic people. While never being officially canonized by the Catholic church as a capital “S” Saint, Patrick was recognized by local leaders as a saint for his role in effectively and boldly proclaiming the gospel across Ireland.
Why do you need to know Patrick?
Patrick epitomized the importance of cultural relevance and understanding. Having spent six years as a slave to Milchu, a Druid chieftain, in Ireland. Patrick knew the language, the religion and the culture of the people he was sent to evangelize. He also developed a strategy to spread the gospel most effectively.
He focused his attention on the chiefs and other influential people in the communities. This allowed him to maximize his time and energies because as those people were converted, including his former slave master Milchu, they would be able to hold sway over others. Successful missionaries (and Christians in general) still recognize the value in what Patrick did.
To reach a culture, you must know and love the culture. Patrick knew the Irish people. He loved the Irish people. As a result, he reached them for Christ. Estimates are he baptized 10,000 Irish people and planted 300 churches.
Besides recognizing the way in which Patrick became a successful missionary, you should know about him and his life because you have a chance to use him as a springboard to talk about Christ at least once a year.
Every year on March 17, people believe they are celebrating St. Patrick simply by wearing the color green or drinking a lot of alcohol. It might be more the case that they are using the day as an excuse to drink until they are sick, but regardless, it presents an opportunity like Christmas and Easter.
Knowing the life of Patrick will allow you the opportunity to speak about a man who gave up everything for the cause of Christ. A slave-turned-missionary, Patrick can be the perfect individual for modern Christians reference and emulate. He was counter-cultural within culture.
Odd Trivia Fact: Having escaped captivity in Ireland after six years, Patrick was reportedly captured and held in France for 60 days before finally making it back home to England.