“”My Name Is Patrick. I am a sinner.”
These are the opening words of what many believe to be Patrick’s magnum opus, Confessio. Written in the 5th century by St. Patrick himself, Confessio is a spiritual autobiography recounting the patron saint’s transformation from a humble herdsman to one of the great historical heroes of the Christian faith. His harrowing story recounts the miraculous ways in which God intervened in his own life and in the lives of those he ministered to as he shared the gospel with the people of Ireland. At the same time, Patrick displays an admirable measure of self-awareness: he is not hesitant to talk about his own shortcomings and doubts. Yet, Patrick is all the more eager to emphasize God’s presence in his life as a source of encouragement and strength, and, ultimately the sole reason for his success as a missionary in Ireland.
Patrick was likely born in the 5th century A.D. He was raised in Brittania before being kidnapped from his family by Irish raiders. He spent six years in Ireland as a herdsman. There, he came to faith. He recounts:
After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.Confession of Saint Patrick, 16
Sensing direction from God to return to his native Britannia, Patrick escaped his Irish captors and found passage out of Ireland with a group of pagan sailors. After reaching land, the sailors, accompanied by Patrick, continued their journey on foot. The trek was anything but smooth, and the group soon faced starvation. The sailors turned to Patrick and mockingly challenged his God to intervene:
After three days we made it to land, and then for twenty eight days we travelled through a wilderness. Food ran out, and great hunger came over them. The captain turned to me and said: “What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful – why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger? There’s no sign of us finding a human being anywhere!” Then I said to them with some confidence: “Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God[Nota], because nothing is impossible for him[Nota], so that he may put food in your way – even enough to make you fully satisfied! He has an abundance everywhere.” With the help of God, this is actually what happened! A herd of pigs appeared in the way before our eyes! They killed many of them and there they remained for two nights, and were fully restored, and the dogs too were filled. Many of them had grown weak and left half-alive by the way. After this, they gave the greatest of thanks to God, and I was honoured in their eyes. From this day on, they had plenty of food.Confession of Saint Patrick, 19
Patrick eventually made his way back home to his parents and stayed with them for several years. Understandably, they begged him to never leave them again. God, however, had other plans. He showed Patrick a vision of a man coming from Ireland, carrying “so many letters they could not be counted” (23). Upon reading one of the letters, Patrick realized that these letters represented the voice of the Irish people:
They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for.
Another night – I do not know, God knows, whether it was within me or beside me– I heard authoritative words which I could hear but not understand, until at the end of the speech it became clear: “The one who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks in you”; and I awoke full of joy.Confessions of Saint Patrick, 23-24
Even after recieving this encouragement, Patrick was reluctant to heed God’s call. He did not believe himself to be worthy of the task ahead of him. Yet, Patrick expressed utter confidence in God’s ability to use him as an instrument for his purposes, despite his shortcomings:
So I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation. I can today with confidence offer my soul to Christ my Lord as a living victim He is the one who defended me in all my difficulties. I can say: Who am I, Lord, or what is my calling, that you have worked with me with such divine presence? This is how I come to praise and magnify your name among the nations all the time, wherever I am, not only in good times but in the difficult times too. Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God. He has shown me that I can put my faith in him without wavering and without end. However ignorant I am, he has heard me, so that in these late days I can dare to undertake such a holy and wonderful work.Confessions of Saint Patrick, 34
Bolstered by this faith, Patrick returned to Ireland. There, despite persecution and the constant threat of martyrdom, Patrick’s ministry brought scores of Irish to faith in Christ.
Patrick did not allow his success to make him proud. He was ever-aware that his calling to preach the gospel was not based on his own worthiness, but rooted solely in the grace of God, who loved him enough to call him into service for Christ’s sake.
I see that already in this present age the Lord has given me a greatness more than could be expected. I was not worthy of this, not the kind of person the Lord would do this for, since I know for certain that poverty and calamity are more my style than riches and enjoyment. But Christ the Lord became poor for us; I too am wretched and unhappy. Even if I were to wish for riches, I do not have them. I am not trying to judge myself, since every day there is the chance that I will be killed, or surrounded, or be taken into slavery, or some other such happening. But I fear none of these things, because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of almighty God, who is the ruler of all places, as the prophet says: “Cast your concerns on God, and he will sustain you.”
Now I commend my soul to my most faithful God. For him I perform the work of an ambassador, despite my less than noble condition. However, God is not influenced by such personal situations, and he chose me for this task so that I would be one servant of his very least important servants.
So I shall make a return to him for all that he has given to me. But what can I say, or what can I promise to my Lord? There is nothing I have that is not his gift to me. But he knows the depths of my heart, my very gut feelings! He knows that it is enough that I desire very much, and am ready for this, that he would grant me to drink of his chalice, just as he was pleased to do for others who loved himConfessions of Saint Patrick 55-57
Saint Patrick has become something of a mythological figure over the centuries. You might be familiar with the famous tales of him driving snakes out of Ireland, or his explanation of the Holy Trinity using the leaves of a shamrock. One Catholic legend claims that he raised 33 men from the dead. The problem is that many of these stories came about after the 7th century – some 200 years after Patrick’s death.
Though Saint Patrick seems to blur the line between missionary and folk hero, and many of his accomplishments seem to have been embellished over the centuries, his influence cannot be overstated. This was a man who baptized thousands of native Irish in the name of Jesus Christ; whose contribution to the spread of the Church in northern Europe is comparable to that of the apostle Paul’s ministry in Italy, Greece, and the Near East. Unfortunately, legend and folklore seem to have overshadowed Saint Patrick’s true accomplishments. Somehow, though, I don’t think he would have minded. The countless people who are now enjoying eternity with Christ because of his faithful work would be consolation enough.