Patrick was a teenager when Irish pirates kidnapped him from the western coast of England early in the morning. Patrick and his friends had gone to the beach to play before their families awoke to the business of the new day. It didn’t take much for the pirates to overpower the young lads and haul them off to uncertain futures.
It was the end of the 4th Century. Patrick’s father Calpurnius, was a political official and a deacon and his grandfather Potitus, was a Celtic priest. Patrick himself was raised in the Christian faith, but he did not take it seriously and was careless in its practice.
At landfall on Irish soil, the pirates quickly sold their young captives. Milchu, a cruel and surly master, purchased Patrick to tend his sheep and swine. Patrick’s warm and comfortable bed was exchanged for endless nights in the cold open air. “From that day on,” he would later recount, “I was always cold, and always hungry.”
As lonely days on the windswept hills stretched into weeks and months, Patrick’s thoughts turned towards home. How much he had taken for granted! In his desperation, he began to fill his days and nights with prayer.
At first he prayed only for material things and for his deliverance from slavery. Little by little, he began to consider the condition of his own heart. He later described his encounter with God in these words:
The Lord opened to me the sense of my unbelief that I might remember my sins and that I might return with my own heart to the Lord my God…The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more–and faith grew and the Spirit was roused. (Cahill)
Six years passed.
As Patrick continued to pray he matured and developed into a man. He also became an able shepherd and masterful handler of the half-domesticated sheepdogs. He learned the Celtic language of the Irish, and came to understand their religious system.
“They worshiped the sun, moon, wind, water, fire, and rocks and believed in good and evil spirits of all kinds inhabiting the trees and hills. Magic and sacrifice – including human sacrifice – were part of the religious rites performed by the druids or priests” (Tucker). Patrick admired their emotional intensity and their creativity, but grieved over their propensity to violence.
As Patrick drew near to God, the Lord drew near to him. Although he had no Bible with him, the Lord spoke to him in visions and dreams. One day, in a vision, God showed him it was time to flee. The Lord himself would take care of him.
Patrick knew that the consequences for trying to escape would mean torture or even death, but he followed his vision and headed for the coast 200 miles away. He traveled by night and hid by day. When he finally arrived at the shore, he found some sailors readying a boat to sail across the Irish Sea.
“Take me with you!” he begged, but they laughed at him, since Patrick had no money. “Unless you pay the passage, why should we bother with you?” they replied. He watched with a sinking heart as they loaded their cargo and prepared to depart.
As he watched, the sailors struggled to board some wild sheepdogs. His years as a slave had prepared him for such a time as this. He ran to the boat and demonstrated his capacity to manage the dogs. Soon, the dogs were on board and calm. Grateful, the sailors took him with them in exchange for his services.
As the shoreline retreated from view, Patrick could at last relax. Now he was free! Free to return home and see his beloved family! Free to take up his life where he had left it! Free never to return to the land and people that had enslaved and mistreated him for those six long years.
Walk With Us Once More
The journey home was lengthy and circuitous. When he finally arrived home, he was deeply grieved to learn that his father had died in his absence, but delighted that he would inherit his father’s political position. Tired of his wanderings, he was glad to settle down and begin to organize his life.
But God had other plans for Patrick.
One night he had another dream. This time it was of Ireland. He saw the faces of people he had known there. The whole flood of his experiences washed over him. Then, as he watched, he saw that they were speaking to him. No, not speaking, they were pleading! “We beseech you, holy youth, to come and walk with us once more.” Patrick would later write that “their cry pierced to my very heart.”
When he woke, he couldn’t get the dream out of his mind. Walk with them again? What a crazy idea! He was free of them; free of their strange customs; their cruelty; their continual warfare; their Godless nature religion…
But then he stopped. As these thoughts tumbled through his mind, one thing came into focus. They were as they were because they didn’t have what he had found as he suffered among them–an intimate and vibrant relationship with Jesus.
Could it be that this dream was from God, much the same as the vision the Apostle Paul had received of “a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9)? Was God calling him to leave his place of peace and privilege to return to Ireland? Could God really ask this of him?
A Delayed Return
Patrick made his way to the church of Auxerre in Gaul (modern day France). He gave himself to years of study and spiritual formation to prepare himself for his apostolic task. Patrick was ordained as a deacon, but because of his lack of academic brilliance, his superiors considered him unsuited for pioneer mission work in Ireland.
Instead, Pope Celestine sent a monk named Palladius to go. However, “the hostility of Nathi, one of the Irish chieftains, and the general resistance of the people discouraged him and he left no enduring impression on Ireland or her church.”
Patrick could only wonder how he could possibly succeed when another had failed so miserably. Yet the call persisted. Patrick was no longer a young man when at last he convinced his teachers of his call, his vision, and his capacity for missionary service.
They ordained him a priest, with the commission and expectation of founding churches in the land of his captivity. With a small group of committed colleagues he sailed to the land for which he had interceded these long years. The flame of his conviction burned bright as he committed his task to God, fully aware of his limitations.
Fact and legend blur as accounts of the next years were passed down through history. What is clear, however, is that his preaching was scriptural and evangelical. The power of Holy Spirit in his life and message confronted the power of the Druids as he suffered stiff opposition.
Twelve times he faced death, including a harrowing kidnapping and two-week captivity. Little by little, the message of Jesus and the Cross triumphed. In time, individuals, including powerful chieftains, responded to the Gospel.
Patrick longed to see his old master, Milchu, come to Christ. He prayed for him as he walked the many miles to the place where he had tended sheep and had received his first dreams. When Milchu heard that Patrick was coming, not as a slave now but a leader of importance, he was sure it was for vengeance. Terrified, he took his own life and burned his house and barns over his head. Tragically, as Patrick crossed the last hill, all that was left were smoldering embers.
Over his lifetime, Patrick founded some two hundred churches. He put great emphasis on spiritual growth and his converts were not only trained to know and love God but also be concerned for those who needed to hear the Gospel. The foundation of his discipleship was the Bible and he understood the Church to be a missionary community.
His disciples and those who came after them crossed the Irish Sea to Britain, moved into Europe, and went as far south as Italy. They founded missionary communities like Iona and Lindisfarne. They were called the peregrini, “those on pilgrimage.” The leaders who remained at home continued to build up the Irish Church and in later centuries became famous for their copying of Greek and Latin manuscripts, thus preserving them for future generations. In time the whole island became Christian.
To our knowledge, Patrick never returned home to Britain. The hungry and shivering slave boy who would become Saint Patrick died an old man, amazed at how the Lord had found him and had given him the opportunity to take what he had been given and share it with those who needed it so desperately.
Blair, Hugh J. “Patrick of Ireland” and Adam Loughridge “Palladius”. In J.D. Douglas (Ed). Dictionary of the Christian Church (Zondervan, 1979).
Latourette, K.S. A History of Christianity (Harper, 1953).
Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Zondervan, 2004).
Cahill, Thomas How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995).