If you've ever read an article about St. Patrick's Day, it probably talked about how little the celebration has to do with the actual Patrick.
I, for one, have grown tired of the annual rehashing of how he didn't really drive the snakes from Ireland and didn't really use the shamrock to explain the Trinity.
Still, it's worth pondering for a moment why we celebrate St. Patrick's Day far more than, say, St. Augustine's Day or St. Athanasius's Day, even though those two men probably had more influence in shaping Christianity across the world. Put simply, it's because Patrick didn't shape Christianity across the world—at least directly. (Though one can argue that his work in shaping Irish Christianity later bore fruit that would affect the faith through the ages.) He's a large but local figure. And, to over-simplify a bit, it was mostly Irish Americans rather than Irish Irish who made the day a festival of national pride.
Ironically, the socio-political meanings of St. Patrick's Day—a pushback against anti-immigrant sentiment and a protest of British rule—have now been as lost in the bacchanal as the historical Patrick, if not more so.
Imagine for a moment that we "took back" St. Patrick's Day. The groups that launch "Defend Christmas" campaigns every year could have a second market here. The question is, What would St. Patrick's Day be about, if not nationalism and booze? Some ideas:
1. Fighting human trafficking
It's hard to think of a social justice issue that's hotter for evangelical Christians right now than human trafficking. The historical figure most commonly hailed for his work in this area is William Wilberforce, but Patrick could make a strong candidate. Of his two extant writings, one tells the story of his abduction, slavery, and escape, and the other is a letter excommunicating soldiers for a slave raid that captured several new converts and sold them to pagan Scotti and Picts.
"It would take too long to … sift through the whole of the Law for precise witness against such greed," Patrick wrote in Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. "Sufficient to say, greed is a deadly deed. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods. You shall not murder. A homicide may not stand beside Christ. Even 'He who bates his brother is to be labeled murderer.' Or, 'He who does not love his brother dwells in death.' therefore how much more guilty is he, who has stained his own hands in the blood of the sons of God, those very children whom only just now he has won for himself in this distant land by means of our feeble encouragement. … Roman Christians in Gaul behave quite differently: it is their custom to send holy, capable men to the Franks and other nations with several thousand soldiers so as to redeem Christian prisoners, yet YOU would rather kill or sell them on to a far-off tribe who know nothing of the true God. You might as well consign Christ's own members to a whorehouse. What kind of hope can you have left in God?"
Patrick's letter is important not just for its condemnation of the slavers, but for its call for all Christians to be part of rejecting fellowship with those involved: "I beseech especially you 'holy and humble in heart,' that it is unlawful to flatter men like these, nor should you eat or drink in their company, neither should anyone feel any obligation to receive alms from such men … My chief request is that anyone who is a servant of God be ready and willing, to carry this letter forward."
Such a call not to eat or drink in the company of slavers could no doubt be taken up by those fighting against child slavery in the chocolate trade, for example.
One issue with making Patrick an abolitionist icon, however, is that he never quite attacked slavery itself. As Jennifer Glancy notes in her book Slavery in Early Christianity,
"Several casual references to his father's slaves, both in his Confesio and in the letter to Coroticus, reveal his fundamental acceptance of the institution of slavery. What offended Patrick was what disturbed other freeborn persons of the era: the reduction of freeborn men and women to the status of slaves. … Freeborn, enslaved, and escaped, Patrick reserved his outrage for actions that threatened the protected status of the free body."
I think Glancy probably goes too far in arguing from absence, and misses Patrick's comment in the Confesio that "Those who are kept in slavery suffer the most. They endure terrors and constant threats, but the Lord has given grace to many of his handmaidens, for even though they are forbidden to do so, still they resolutely follow his example."
That Patrick did not explicitly attack all slavery everywhere, and that he did not condemn his father, does not mean that Patrick was concerned only about freeborn Christians. Still, when it comes to quotable abolitionist forerunners, it may be best to look to the early 19th century rather than the 5th.
Patrick may have been upset that the raiders took freeborn Irish as slaves. But he was truly upset that they took new converts to Christianity. "The very same people I have begotten for God; their number beyond count, I myself confirmed them in Christ," he wrote, "'Ravenous wolves' have gulped down the Lord's own flock, which was flourishing in Ireland and tended with utmost care. Now I have lost count how many sons and daughters of the kings of the Scotti have become monks and virgins of Christ."
This is the emphasis of Asbury Seminary's George Hunter, who wrote The Celtic Way of Evangelism, and church planter Dan Kimball. At times Hunter's description of Patrick's evangelism seems more based on his views of what evangelism should be than on reliable historical records of Patrick's life, but that's what happens with heroes.
3. Multiethnic community and incarnational ministry
Here's the argument from Dana L. Robert, co-director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology, as published in Books & Culture in 2007:
Why would the Irish—or any other group of people, for that matter—accept a former slave in their midst and then be willing to be transformed by his message? … The more deeply Patrick engaged the particularities of Irish culture and identified himself as Irish, the more authentic and believable was his expression of the ideals of a universal community in which there is no longer "Jew or Greek," "slave or free," "male and female" (Gal 3:28). … [T]he paradox of St. Patrick's Day is that in celebrating the creation of Irish identity, it also commemorates the incorporation of a particular people into a vision of universal and multi-cultural community. …
In this powerful letter [to the soldiers of Coroticus, the non-Irish] Patrick showed his identification with the Irish in his phrase "we are Irish." As the bishop of the Irish Christians, he defended them with every ounce of his spiritual power, even if it meant defying a powerful military leader of his own ethnic background. To be a Christian was to identify with a new "reference group"—the Christian family. Fellow baptized believers from whatever tribe or nation became one's new family and should be treated as such. Racial and ethnic differences melted away in light of the common relationship in Christ. … Because Patrick risked becoming Irish, the Irish became Christians.
Perhaps, but Patrick's repeated negative comments about the Scotti and Picts don't quite make him a paragon of multi-culturalism. As Robert later notes in her article, Patrick's work in Ireland was more incarnational—taking on the identity of his flock and laying aside his former identity and rights. As he wrote in the Letter, "For by descent I was a freeman, born of a decurion father; yet I have sold this nobility of mine, I am not ashamed, nor do I regret that it might have meant some advantage to others. In short, I am a slave in Christ to this faraway people for the indescribable glory of 'everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.'"
Patrick didn't quite preach a universal community in which there is "no longer Irish nor Romano-British." There was Irish, but no longer Romano-British.
4. Christian education
Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, was not interested in simply making converts. Rarely does he talk in either his Confesio or his Letter about the number of Irish he has seen convert through his ministry without talking about their development into monks and virgins.
"How is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Scotti and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ," he wrote in the Confesio, then goes on to tell of a "a most beautiful, blessed, native-born noble" convert who fought against her parents to become a virgin of Christ.
Monastic life was beginning to grow in Patrick's time, and (as Thomas Cahill best-sellingly described in How the Irish Saved Civilization) became a hallmark of Celtic Christianity. Conversion was good. But devoting your life to Christian learning and service? That was what Patrick was truly passionate for.
5. "Submitting to the authorities" and rebelling against them
Today's Trinity Forum newsletter draws a fascinating lesson from Patrick's life: "One theme from his life that is not often highlighted is Patrick's relationship to his fellow believers. Consistent with his understanding of God's character, he submitted throughout his life to the authorities and practices of his day, affirming the institutions along with the essential doctrines of the faith."
It's fascinating because Kimball and Hunter (and some others) drew the opposite conclusion, painting Patrick as a rebel of sorts who was under constant criticism from church leaders in Britain.
The debate over how distinct "Celtic" Christianity was from the "Roman" Christianity of its time is ancient, and descriptions of how much a maverick Patrick was depends largely on conjecture. Was Patrick submitting to authority by sending his Confesio in response to accusations that he was unfit to lead (the specifics of which are lost to history)? Or was he recalcitrant or independent in merely sending a written response and not responding in person to what seems to be a summons? Does his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus indicate that he had good relationships with church leaders in Great Britain, or is it an indication that he thought they were being derelict in their church discipline? The evidence can be read either way.
And so it is with Patrick and any number of heroes from church history. They inspire each of us in different ways. "Following in their footsteps" can lead down all kinds of paths. But what Patrick and most of these other heroes of history might have emphasized is that their life should lead, first and foremost, as a pointer to Christ himself.
"I, Patrick, a sinner," he began both his Confesio and his Letter.
The Confesio continues: "After chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven."
Ted Olsen is managing editor for news & online journalism at Christianity Today and author of Christianity and the Celts.
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Other Christianity Today and Christian History articles on St. Patrick's Day include:
What We Can Know about Saint Patrick | He wasn't the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, but he was a pivotal figure. (March 17, 2009)
IrishWatch | Get into the Saint Patrick's Day mood with an eclectic selection of websites concerning all things Irish. (Mar. 17, 2009)
Amassed Media: I Click Today | A look at the Web's best sites about Patrick, one of the world's most famous missionaries. (March 1, 2000)
Reflections | Celtic Prayers and Blessings (November 15, 1999)
Patrick the Saint | Behind the fanciful legends of the fifth-century British missionary stands a man worthy of embellishment. (October 1, 1998)
Patrick and Celtic Christianity: Did You Know? (October 1, 1998)