Because of the celebration of St. Patrick's Day regardless of whether you are Irish or not, St. Patrick (c. 389 - 461) is probably one of the better known saints especially in the English-speaking world. However, the actual facts about him are less well-known. Here is his story.
Kidnapped and Sold Into Slavery
Patrick was born in 389 in either modern day Scotland or Wales. His name was not Patrick at the time but Succat. By the end of the fourth century, the Gospel had spread throughout the country and so it was not a big surprise that Patrick reported that his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. (Married priest were more common up until about the year 1000.) Despite his family's involvement in the Church, from Patrick's own account, he did not take his faith too seriously.
Everything changed for Patrick when he was sixteen. In that year, his hometown was invaded by pirates who were seeking young men and women to enslave. They captured Patrick along with hundreds of others, put them in chains and shipped them to Ireland.
After arriving on the shore of Ireland, the young Patrick was sold to a man named Milcho, who was a local chieftain. He put Patrick to work watching his sheep and cattle in an area called Slemish. Patrick was given enough food and clothing to survive, but not much more than that. Milcho beat Patrick out of spite and treated him worse than the animals. In truth, Patrick lived much like the animals he watched getting cold and wet when it was cold and wet and eating what he could find to fill his stomach.
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Growing Closer to God and an Escape
In the face of this complete transformation of his life, Patrick responded in a surprising way. He ardently began to turn to the Lord whom he had kept at an arm's distance up to that point. In particular, Patrick began to pray. Through his solitude, he drew closer and closer to God. He knew that even while he was a slave in a foreign land with all of his plans for his life crushed, he was loved by God. He believed that God had not abandoned him. In fact, he made the decision to commit himself completely to God.
Through a dream, Patrick heard God call him to make his escape. It had been six years since he had been forced to come to Ireland. Now, he was being led to flee from slavery by simply following a 200 mile road that took him along the coast to the ship he had been told in the dream was waiting for him. Patrick was used to living outdoors, but it was a dangerous journey for a runaway slave who would face severe punishment if he was caught.
Finally, after days of traveling in secret, Patrick arrived to see the ship. It was filled wolfhounds who were to be taken to England to be sold to noblemen. Patrick was initially refused to be allowed to set sail with the ship because he had no money. Then, the crew convinced the captain to take Patrick as they though he might proved to be useful. Once again, he was enslaved. However, once in Britain, Patrick was able to escape from the dog traders and he returned home.
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Answering the Call
Patrick would not remain with his family. Patrick's commitment to serve God combined with the love he had developed for Ireland and its people compelled him to become a priest. Some time after his ordination, he went to Gaul where he trained at two seminaries in order that he might have the spiritual discipline and practical knowledge to be a missionary to Ireland.
God confirmed Patrick's call with dreams in which the Irish people called for him to return to Ireland in order that he might lead them into the truth.
Although he knew the needs in Ireland were urgent, Patrick would spend twenty-one years preparing for his mission. He trusted in God's timing rather than his own. Finally, the time had come, and Patrick prepared himself for his life mission. Before departing Gaul to go to Ireland, he was made Bishop of Ireland in order that he would eventually be able to shepherd the converts and ordain priests.
The Mission Field
In the year 432, Patrick returned to Ireland and began his missionary work. Ireland was filled with chieftains who ruled the people in their region. Although there had been other missionaries in Ireland even during the time when Patrick had been there as a slave, almost everyone in Ireland was a pagan. They worshiped nature and knew nothing of the God who had created everything. In addition, the pagan religious leaders known as the Druids were powerful people who would fight Patrick's efforts to teach Christianity.
Initially, Patrick received the same treatment as previous missionaries who had been driven from place to place. Then, Patrick arrived in the region of the chieftain Dichu who was a wealthy herdsman. The alarm had been sounded when word of Patrick's arrival reached the chieftain, and he rushed to meet the invader with his warriors. Instead of threatening soldiers, Dichu found a humble Christian missionary. By God's grace, Dichu accepted the Gospel and became one of Patrick's first converts. The chieftain was so taken by Patrick and his new found faith that he gave Patrick land and a barn to serve as a church. It was called Sabhall Padraic or the barn of Patrick.
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The Irish Church Grows
After this initial success, Patrick would proceed by obtaining the permission and protection of a chieftain in a given region to preach the Gospel. If the chieftain was reluctant to help Patrick, he would challenge the Druids directly. Once he had permission, Patrick would begin to openly preach the Gospel and baptize any who were willing to profess the faith.
Slowly, but surely, more and more Irish men and women became convinced that there is only one God and He created all of nature. As the number of converts grew over the years, Patrick's entourage grew, as well. Many men joined his efforts to evangelize the country. The group would eventually contain craftsman to help build churches, judges, cooks, a bodyguard, a psalmist, seminarians, and priests.
Patrick would spend twenty years evangelizing all of Ireland as he crisscrossed the country. Over that time, he helped baptize thousands of men and women, built hundreds of churches, and ordained thousands of priests.
With the Angels
Patrick rarely had time to himself after his return to Ireland. Thus, when he spent one Lent by himself on a peak near Clew Bay, it was a special time of prayer and fasting for him. It is reported that during that time Patrick spoke with an angel. He thought not of himself, but asked for special favors for the people of Ireland that they would remain true to the faith.
Then when the end of his journey came, he once again received direction from the Lord. Anticipating his own death, Patrick was trying to return to Armagh which had become his headquarters in order to die there. Instead an angel directed him to return to Sabhall Padraic. In obedience, he followed the order and returned to his first parish in Ireland to die soon after on March 17th of the year 461.
Note, the years of Patrick's life are not considered very certain. The years 389 - 461 are accepted by some authorities as a reasonable estimate.
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