St. Patrick’s Day, celebrated each year on March 17th, is about more than shamrocks and leprechauns. St. Patrick’s Day commemorates the life of an early Christian missionary.
In the fifth century, Ireland was a beautiful island enshrouded in violence and spiritual darkness. Warlords and druids ruled the land. But one man would be used by God to break through the darkness and introduce the light of Christ to this heathen land.
The man we now know as St. Patrick was born in Roman ruled Britain to a middle-class Christian family around A.D. 390. The grandson of a priest and son of a deacon, Patrick was exposed early to the truth of the Gospel, yet by the time he was a teenager he had rebelled against his Christian upbringing to the point that he was pratically an atheist.
Then his life took a drastic change for the worse. Irish raiders attacked his home and he was abducted from his village and thrown onto a slave ship headed for Ireland. At 16 years of age he found himself a slave in a foreign land, separated from everything he’d ever known. He was sold to an Irish chieftain named Milchu, who put him to work as a shepherd.
Patrick saw this difficult situation in his life as God’s chastising him, believing he deserved what had happened because of his rejection of the faith of his fathers. And while a slave in Ireland, his life began to change. Instead of becoming bitter, he turned to the God he knew about but had previously refused to acknowledge as his God.
Rev. Brady, the Roman Catholic Archbiship of Armagh and Primate of All of Ireland, says of young Patrick,
“He says, ‘I prayed a hundred times in the day and almost as many at night,’ Through that experience of prayer and trial, he came to know another God — God the Father, who was his protector. He came to know Jesus Christ in those sufferings, and he came to be united with Christ and he came to identify with Christ, and then of course, also the Holy Spirit.”
Patrick’s hard years of slavery came to an end six years later, when during a time of prayer and fasting God spoke to him that he would soon return to his own country and gave him clear direction when it was time to leave. He escaped and traveled 200 miles to the west coast, where he found a ship – the ship God had shown him in prayer – ready to sail. Though at first refused passage, after desperate prayer Patrick was allowed aboard. He returned to his home and family, where he began to study for the ministry.
Patrick had no desire to return to Ireland, but that was exactly what God asked of him. Philip Freeman, author of St. Patrick of Ireland, says:
“One night, he had a dream. There was a man who came from Ireland with a whole bunch of letters. And he opened up one of the letters and it said ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And then he heard a voice coming out of this letter that said, ‘Holy boy, please return to us. We need you.'”
Patrick struggled in his soul, not convinced this dream was from God and having no desire to return to Ireland and minister to the same people who had enslaved him. Once again, he turned to God in prayer. He received the answer in a dream. God truly was calling him to return to Ireland as a missionary, and he stepped out in obedience to God’s leading.
Patrick gave 29 years of his life to ministry and established the first Christian church in all of Ireland. During that time, he preached the Gospel, baptized over 120,000 Irishmen, and planted 300 churches. Freeman declares, “What Patrick did was really lay the groundwork for Christianity.” Because of Patrick’s willingness to die to his own will and return to Ireland, the land of his suffering, in obedience to the Lord’s call, that nation was forever changed. Reflect on this truth as you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year.