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The Real St. Patrick


Patrick – Roman Catholic or Reformed?

 In writing about Patrick, and in addressing this particular title, I am aware that I will probably run the gauntlet of divided opinion about the man. Many Roman Catholic people hold Patrick in such esteem that they will accept little or nothing about him which runs counter to their perceived opinion. Many Protestants have, traditionally, been so apathetic about Patrick that they have bee content to ignore him, and leave it to their Roman Catholic friends to celebrate his life in whatever way they have chosen. This paper seeks to challenge both positions and to encourage us, in this modern age, to consider our soul’s welfare, as Patrick did in bygone days.


Patrick – The Myth

The myth of Patrick is big business and a big deception rolled into one. In Ireland, Patrick’s Day is celebrated in but a few places. The capital city of the Irish Republic is one such centre, whilst in Northern Ireland, Patrick is most noticeably remembered on 17th March in the town named for the saint – Downpatrick, – recent parades and events in Belfast have been trailed as ‘Cross-community’ but are in effect simply naked expressions of sectarian Irish Republicanism.

Outside Ireland Patrick has a huge following. One of the largest and most controversial parades in the world is held on St Patrick’s Day in New York. Official floats are entered on behalf of many organisations within the city, including the police department! The President of the United States hosts a huge party on the day with invitations being sent to political leaders and celebrities from across the world. Meanwhile the shamrock bedecked Irish American population swills its green beer and dreams wistfully of the “oul country”.

Yet many of the popular views about Patrick have no historical accuracy whatsoever.  It is said that he was responsible for driving the snakes out of Ireland, although it is highly unlikely if there were any snakes in Ireland at the time of Patrick. It is also unlikely that Patrick ever used a shamrock to explain anything never mind the nature of the trinity. Yet perhaps the most dangerous myth of all war dreamt up by Roman Catholic monks who wrote later “histories” about Patrick which claimed that he was sent to Ireland by the Pope of Rome, landed in Ireland at Wicklow, converted the ruling heathen king of Ireland at Tara and climbed to the top of Croagh Patrick to pray and have fellowship with God. The statue of Patrick erected at Tara (and other portraits) showing him in the garb of a Bishop of Roman Catholicism are both anachronistic and misleading.

Moreover, there is no evidence for the alleged date of his death, March 17th, or for his burial at Downpatrick. Yet the myths persist. Seapatrick, a small village in county Down, is so called because Patrick, allegedly sat down there on his way to Downpatrick! (seat of Patrick). And one of the biggest myths of all was that he was Irish. In fact, although he would have been of Celtic origin, he was most certainly not Irish at all, but from the British mainland.

Finally he did not bring Christianity to Ireland, as there were already small groups of Christians meeting in Ireland before Patrick arrived.

Patrick – The Man

The truth about Patrick’s life is somewhat more mundane than the various myths. The only reliable documents that point to the history of Patrick are his own two documents, The Confession and the Letter to Coronticus. Both these are acknowledged as being from the hand of Patrick himself, both written in Latin near the end of his life.

Patrick was born in Britain around the end of the fourth century AD. His father was Calpurnius, a Roman name suggesting that Patrick was of noble birth. In fact we know that Calpurnius was a deacon in the church and held an official position within the Roman administration in Britain. The family may have been Welsh, because we know that Patrick’s native language was a Celtic dialect, perhaps the predecessor of modern Welsh. At sixteen years old Patrick’s life was shattered when a party of wild Irish marauders attacked his family’s estate. Many of the servants were slaughtered in the raid, and Patrick, along with others from the villa were taken into captivity. They were shipped to Ireland as slaves.

As a slave Patrick’s life was unpleasant in the extreme. He experienced hunger and exhaustion, even before being sold to a sheep farmer. Alone and in deep distress Patrick sought the Lord. Like the Psalmist of the Old Testament, Patrick was in a pit of despair, when he cried unto the Lord for salvation. God always hears the prayers of the repentant sinner, and Patrick was saved by God’s sovereign grace alone, without need for priest, confession, mass or Mary. Patrick himself put it like this, “The Lord opened the understanding of my unbelieving heart that I might recall the sins and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God.” Patrick’s conversion was attested to by many of those who saw his life, witnessed his love for others and his practice of Christianity.

Patrick had to wait some six years or more for the opportunity to come for his escape from captivity. When it did he took it and made his way by ship to his parent’s home in Britain. At this time Patrick records having seen a vision of a man calling him back to Ireland to preach the Gospel. Patrick became a deacon, then a Bishop, in the local church, before making his way to Ireland, where he remained for the rest of his life.

His task was enormous. Ireland then, as now, was a divided land. There was no central government, much lawlessness and few Christians. Roman civilisation had not reached Ireland, so there were no roads, and most places were hard to reach, even on foot.

Yet, spurred on by his simple faith in God, his love for the people who had treated him so cruelly and his earnest desire for their conversion Patrick willingly made the journey back.

Patrick – The Message.

What exactly was the message which Patrick carried to those wild, warlike tribes on the island of Hibernia?

1) Patrick was a Man of the Book.

Throughout his writings Patrick refers constantly to the Bible. It is his only rule of faith and practise. This would in itself mark Patrick out as being different from the Roman Catholic Church today, where the Bible is placed alongside tradition and is only interpreted in the light of dogma.

2) Patrick Admitted the Sin of Man and the Need of Conversion.

Patrick begins his confession with the words, “I, Patrick, a sinner….” He acknowledges his own unworthiness and sinfulness before God. He points out that there was a time in his life when he did not know God, and that God had permitted the enslavement of his family because of his and their sinfulness. He admits that his turning to God only occurred after his understanding had been opened.

Again this is different from Roman Catholic religion, where people are said to be brought into a state of grace at baptism and where thereafter adherents need to work to earn their place in heaven by a series of observances and actions. Poor Patrick, alone on the mountains, without a priest for confession and penance and a mass to attend, would have been lost under the Roman Catholic system of religion.

3) Patrick Reinforced the Beliefs of the Apostles.

Patrick did preach on the Trinity, although not with a shamrock! His confession contains many of the doctrines of grace, including God’s gift of free salvation for all sinners who would believe in Him and repent of their sins. He taught that such believers should be baptised, and that one day Christ would return to this earth, after which there would be a day of judgement.

4) Patrick was a Living Testimony to God’s Grace.

Patrick lived out his faith. In those days the people of Ireland were largely illiterate. Distribution of literature was pointless and the authenticity of a message could be judged only on the conduct of the messenger. Patrick’s message was reinforced by his humble and prayerful life.

Patrick – the Misunderstanding

Was Patrick a Romanist or a Reformed believer? Certainly Patrick was not a Romanist who came to Ireland to deliver the native Irish into the hands of the Pope. This happened many years later at the hands of an English king. Patrick’s sole task was to be a living witness for Christ and to bring other people into Christ’s kingdom. his return to the land of his captivity makes him one of the bravest missionaries in the history of the church and the early, autonomous, Celtic Church which developed in Ireland as a result of his efforts carried on his work for many years to come.

Patrick was not perfect and did not have all the understanding or light which later reformers had. Still, his understanding of the doctrines of grace and his testimony to the saving power of God in Christ witness to a biblical faith, not unlike the faith of later reformers. Like Martin Luther, Patrick depended on God’s free and sovereign grace for his conversion, and on a bleak hillside, without the trappings of Romish religion, he eagerly grasped God’s offered salvation by faith alone.

In response to his ministry we would do well to live out our lives as Patrick did so that our neighbours, and those who would persecute us, might see Christ in us as they did in Patrick. As the Lord Jesus Christ said,”Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5 v16)

From → History

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