Famous Christians 2: Patrick

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"Saint Patrick," as popularly conceived, is as historical a figure as "Saint Nick"! Patrick, the Irish Catholic, was reputedly the clergyman who drove all the snakes out of Ireland and was fond of shamrocks. What is the truth about this legendary figure?

Just as Saint Nick ("Santa Claus," a corruption from the Dutch) was a real person—in fact a 3rd/4th century bishop in Turkey—so "Saint Patrick" too was a real person. But we must separate the frills from the facts. Pots of gold, leprechauns, herpetological marvels—these we must discount—yet there is an historical kernel that is well worth appreciating.

Captive loves Captor
Patrick was in fact a Roman Briton who lived about 385-461 AD. His home was in the west of what is now Great Britain (Wales). His father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest. Naturally Patrick spoke Latin, and was nominally Christian. Kidnapped by Irish pirates when a teenager, he spent a number of years in Ireland as a slave. It was here that Patrick truly came to faith. In addition, he learned the Irish language—and also learned to love the people. Some years after his escape, it became his passion to return to Ireland to preach the gospel—which is exactly what he did. Captive loves captor! Forgiveness is not an issue. Patrick claims he often prayed "a hundred times a day." Thousands were baptized. In short, Patrick is the first and most important figure to establish Christianity in Ireland.

Of Shamrocks and Snakes
As for the shamrock, this, we are told, was his method of explaining the Trinity to the Irish. (Aren't good analogies always in short supply?) The color green is the color of Ireland -- the "Emerald Isle." And as for snakes, they never were native to Ireland after the last glacial period. Irish Saint, Catholic Clergyman? As the Roman Empire was weakening—crumbling politically and militarily—the Church also was losing its fire and faith. Patrick, however, knew where the real power lay. He was a man of prayer and evangelism. Since most distinctively "Catholic" practices had not yet taken hold in Christianity, it is misleading to claim Patrick was a Roman Catholic. He was his own man! As for being a "saint," this term, which applied to all true believers in New Testament times (Ephesians 1:1), was later used to describe men and women of special faith. It is wholly inaccurate to deny the title "saint" to any true Christian, just as it is wrongheaded to label anyone a "saint" who is not living a holy life. So this man was not a Catholic, would have rejected the special title "saint," and, to top it all off, was not even Irish!

Saint Paddy's Day
As for St. Patrick's Day, March 17th is thought to be the day, in 461 AD, that the tireless Christian worker died. (Since 1737 this day has been celebrated in the United States.)

Patrick displayed considerable passion for evangelism and love for the Lord. He influenced many for Jesus Christ. For more on this amazing man, let me suggest the following books:

* David W. Berçot, Let Me Die in Ireland: The True Story of Patrick (Tyler, Texas: Scroll, 1999). Easy to read, captivating portrayal of the life of Patrick. Read this one first.
* John Skinner, tr., The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus (New York: Doubleday, 1998). One of a number of books containing the two surviving writings of Patrick. For the original sources, even in translation, works like this are indispensable.
* Máire B. de Paor, Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland (New York: Harper Collins, 1998). Scholarly, annotated, with Latin originals. Not for the academically fainthearted.

This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 2003. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.