Who Is St. Patrick?

Jonathan Pokluda | 03.17.18

Today, thousands of people will gather along Greenville to celebrate…um, green beer, apparently. And pinching. And being Irish, although I’d be surprised if any of them are actually from Ireland.

It’s the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and just like St. Valentine’s Day, Halloween, or just about any modern holiday, the original point of the day doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. Each holiday serves as an excuse to indulge in x, where x = candy, or turkey, or fireworks, or—in this case—Guinness.

But there is one difference: for most holidays, the majority of people do at least know what the holiday is supposed to be about. We know the reason for the season. With St. Patrick’s Day, though, you could go down to Greenville and have a hard time finding anyone who knows anything about St. Patrick, or why he deserves a day.

What St. Patrick’s Day is Really About

Considering that he lived 1600 years ago, we actually know quite a few details about St. Patrick. This is mostly because he wrote it down himself, in his "Confession”. And no, it has nothing to do with driving snakes out of Ireland, though I’ve heard that story before. And according to Wikipedia, the color originally associated with St. Patrick was blue, not green.

In fact, there are several things you might not expect about St. Patrick:

1. He wasn’t Irish.

He was from Britain, most likely from what is now northwest England. He did end up in Ireland, but only because he was kidnapped at age 16 and taken there as a slave.

He worked there, against his will, as a shepherd. After six years, God spoke to him in a dream and told him there was a ship he could escape on. So he ran off—200 miles off—and did find a ship, and did eventually make it back to Britain.

2. He wasn’t a saint.

Kind of a trick question, since nobody is born a saint, regardless of how you define the term. But here’s how Patrick described himself:

I, Patrick, a sinner, the rudest and the least of all the faithful, and an object of the greatest contempt to many…

And I don’t think that was false humility. He mentions a time that the church elders “came forth and brought up my sins as an objection,” and it had to do with something he had done 30 years before, when he was about 15. Interestingly, Patrick doesn’t tell us what he did—it was that bad—and when he told his secret 30 years after the fact, church elders thought he was not fit to continue in ministry.

But he did continue. In fact, it was possibly just after that confrontation that he did the most interesting thing:

3. He went back to save those who enslaved him.

People thought he was crazy for doing it. No, really. He wrote:

For many tried to prevent this my mission; they would even talk to each other behind my back and say: “Why does this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?”

Ireland was considered a really vile nation at the time (about 430 A.D.). Besides slavery, they were known for incest, bestiality, and all kinds of crazy wild stuff. They worshiped pagan gods, and associated Patrick with a supposed Druid prophecy that unflatteringly warned about one “crazed in the head” who would come from “across the sea.” They chained him, robbed him, and beat him.

Why would he go back? Why did he willingly suffer abuse, and dedicate the rest of his life to try reaching those who had enslaved him and abused him? What kind of person does that?

The kind of person they name a day after, for starters.

But I think it’s actually because he wasn’t a saint, or at least didn’t start out that way. He knew that he had been forgiven much. He knew that he actually deserved slavery, if not for God’s forgiveness. That he was no better than the Irish. So, God gave him a heart to reach out to those people, and even specifically to his old slave master.

4. He changed the world.

According to some historians, the impact he had on Ireland later ended up saving civilization.

Ireland was most definitely not a Christian nation when Patrick started preaching the gospel there.

And it most definitely was a Christian nation when he finished.

So, among other things, St. Patrick’s Day is really about forgiveness. The kind of forgiveness, faithfulness, and love that can change a life. Change many lives. Change the world.

That, and shamrocks.

How are you spending St. Patrick’s Day?

– JP

Original publish date March 2013

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