Rev. Stewart is a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches, presently working in Northern Ireland.
We have considered the biblical message of the gospel that Patrick knew in his heart and that he brought to the people of Ireland. We have also seen that Patrick was called by the British church to labor in Ireland and that he had unshakable confidence in his divine calling. However, he was not sent to preach in wholly virgin territory. That there were some believers in Ireland before Patrick’s visit is evident from the writings of a contemporary, Prosper of Aquitane, and Patrick himself tells us that there were believers in Ireland before his mission (cf. Conf 51).
But how did Patrick go about his work? Philip Hughes gives a fine summary of Patrick’s labors:
The saint spent himself in an endless apostolate, preaching, baptizing, ordaining, consecrating other bishops, everywhere establishing monasteries and a curious kind of ecclesiastical settlement, part monastery, part seminary, part center of administration, which, in this country where cities were unknown, serve as the bishop’s see.1
Diligent labor, Patrick explains, was the means of his success. After the kidnapping and murder of some of his converts, he speaks of “the flock of the Lord which was increasing in Ireland nicely as a result of hard work” (Letter 12). Patrick spent himself for the souls of his Irish converts (Conf 53), taking trouble and labor for the salvation of others (Conf 28). Thus he had a good conscience, serving God “in faithfulness to the truth and in sincerity of heart” (Conf 48).
But he does not accredit this to his own power. Right from his earliest days as a Christian, Patrick learned to supplicate the throne of grace. Even as a shepherd-slave he would “rise before dawn” and pray fervently in the power of the Spirit (Conf 16). The great missionary to Ireland confesses, “By God’s gift I achieved everything industriously and willingly for your salvation” (Conf 51).
That Patrick saw his mission in terms of preaching is clear. He speaks both in his Confession and in his Letter of “hunting” sinners and “fishing” for them with the gospel net (Conf 40; Letter 11). “The children of God whom [the Lord] has recently gathered at the ends of the earth,” Patrick says, have been saved “through my exhortation poor though I am!” (Letter 9). He confesses that God enabled him “to come and preach the gospel to Irish tribes” (Conf 37). Mohrmann reckons that Patrick must have been a “very eloquent preacher,” since “the language and style” of his writings are “very dynamic.”2
But what did Patrick see as the basis for preaching? In Confession 40, he lists the classical biblical texts for missionary work, includingMatthew 28:19-20 and Mark 16:15-16. The promises of the gathering of the catholic church were dear to him. In both the Confession and the Letter he quotes Matthew 8:11: “They will come from the east and from the west and will sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven” (Conf 39; Letter 18). Patrick describes the Irish as a people
whom the Lord chose from the ends of the earth as long ago he had promised through his prophets: to you the nations will come from the ends of the earth and will say: just as our fathers took to themselves false idols and there is no usefulness in them, and in another place, I have set you as a light to the Gentiles so that you may be for salvation even to the end of the earth (Conf 38).
One striking point about Patrick’s missionary work is that he understood it eschatologically. He speaks often of the “last days” (e.g., Conf 34; Letter 11) and the Rule of Faith says that “we … await [Christ’s] Advent which will happen soon” (Conf 4). Patrick quotes the classic text linking the spread of the gospel and the end of the world: “This gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony for all nations and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14; Conf 40). For Patrick, the mission to Ireland was not merely one of many missions to hitherto unreached nations. He did not know of Iceland and the Americas to the west, so he thought of Ireland as being at “the end of the earth” (Conf 1). Patrick saw himself as one of those whom
the Lord had long ago foretold would declare his gospel as a testimony to all nations before the end of the world, and we see as a consequence that it has been fulfilled just so: you can see that we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached as far as the point where there is no beyond (Conf 34).
Hanson accurately presents Patrick’s thought: “When the gospel will have been preached to every nation (and the Irish are the last on the list), then the world will end.”3
Like all true missionaries of all ages, Patrick was motivated to obey the call to go to other lands to preach the gospel out of love to God and love to the people to whom he ministered. He tells us that the love of Christ “carried” him to Ireland (Conf 13). He testifies, “I live among barbarian tribes as an exile for the love of God; God himself is witness that this is true…. I exist to teach tribes for my God” (Letter 1).
Patrick thought of his converts as part of the universal church of Jesus Christ. They are the “flock of the Lord” (Letter 12) and “children of God” (Letter 15) for whom Christ died (Letter 7). Patrick speaks of them as “most beautiful and most beloved brothers whom I have begotten in Christ” (Letter 16; cf. Letter 2; Conf 38). William Henry Scott notes that in Patrick’s writings “not the slightest innuendo betrays any sense of patronizing superiority or paternalism.”4
When Coroticus butchered and kidnapped many Irish Christians, Patrick quotes I Corinthians 12:26: “If one member grieves all members should grieve with it” (Letter 16). Thus he is filled with “sorrow and grief” (Letter 16). At this point he identifies fully with the Irish church: “They think it derogatory that we are Irish” (Letter 16). Of course, Patrick was not Irish by birth but British, but his heart so burned for his brothers in the Lord that he adopted their nationality. This was quite a statement to make in a letter addressed to Britons who despised the Irish as non-Roman barbarians.
Patrick’s love for the Irish people did not result in his watering down the gospel. We see him declining to partake in Irish idolatry and immorality right from the time of his escape from slavery in Ireland (Conf 18). His hatred for their paganism comes out in Confession 41: “Those in Ireland … up to now always only worshipped idols and filthy things.” Irish pagans who worship the sun, Patrick affirms, “will come to a bad end in wretched punishment” (Conf 60).
Persecution resulted but, by the grace of God, this too failed to make Patrick compromise the gospel.
God … prevailed in me … to enable me to come and preach the gospel to Irish tribes and endure insults from unbelievers, to bear the reproach of my pilgrimage and many persecutions, even as far as being thrown into irons (Conf 37).
Patrick speaks of his “twelve perils” (Conf 35) and several imprisonments (Conf 15, 21, 35, 37, 52). Three times he expresses the hope that God might grant him the crown of martyrdom (Conf 37, 55, 59). It was always a distinct possibility. In one place Patrick refers to himself as one “whom this world hates” (Conf 13). He tells us, “I daily expect either assassination or trickery or reduction to slavery or some accident or other, but I fear none of these things on account of the promises of heaven” (Conf 55).
In many ways Patrick showed faithfulness in his gospel labors. He was not afraid to travel to the more remote and barbarous parts of Ireland with the Word of God (Conf 51). He took great pains to be straightforward in his dealings with the Irish tribes. Patrick was not, as much of the (later) medieval church, tainted with simony (Conf 55). To avoid even the appearance of covetousness he refused many voluntary gifts (Conf 48-50). Patrick’s motivation for this is striking:
But I [did it] because of the hope of the permanence [of my mission] to safeguard myself carefully in every way, for this purpose that they should not catch me or the ministry of my service out in any charge of unfaithfulness and that I should not give an opportunity for denigration or disparagement even in the smallest matters (Conf 49).
… for the sake of God and his church … in case the name of the Lord should be blasphemed through me (Conf 48).
Patrick’s reference to the desired “permanence” of his mission is also important (Conf 49). “The Lord Christ,” he tells us, “commanded me that I should come to be with them for the rest of my life” (Conf 43). Patrick was not a fly-by-night evangelist with no long-term goals. Instead, he wanted to stay in Ireland all his days, that the church might be solidly established and so continue to prosper after his death. Patrick’s goal was an indigenous church served by Irish officebearers.
I must … promulgate the name of God everywhere fearlessly and faithfully, so as to leave after my death a legacy to my brothers and my children whom I have baptized in the Lord, so many thousands of people (Conf 14).
Just before this, Patrick had spoken of the necessity of his teaching “from the rule of faith of the Trinity” and making known “thegift of God and eternal comfort” (Conf 14). Clearly the legacy he wished to leave to the succeeding generations of the Irish church was creedal Trinitarian orthodoxy, the comforting gospel of the grace of God (Conf 51). This alone would stand the test of time.
Patrick’s lament was that he could not serve his Lord perfectly (cf. Conf 13). He knew his academic limitations. He also knew the struggle with the old man, which he refers to as “this body of death” and “the hostile flesh” (Conf 44), and with Satan and the wicked world (Conf 13, 20, 44, 55). But through it all his only hope was in the faithfulness of his God (Conf 35, 54-56). Patrick’s closing words in his Confession, disclaiming all credit for his mission and attributing it all to the pleasure of the Lord, are especially poignant.
But I beg those who believe in God and fear him whoever shall condescend to peruse or to receive this writing which Patrick, a very badly educated sinner, has written in Ireland, that nobody shall ever say that it was I, the ignoramus, if I have achieved or shown any small success according to God’s pleasure, but you are to think and it must be sincerely believed, that it was the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die (Conf 62).
1.Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Catholic Church (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954), p. 68. The debate as to where his center of labor was (Armagh, Tara or elsewhere) does not concern us here.
2.Christine Mohrmann, The Latin of Saint Patrick (Dublin: Dublin University Press), 1961, p. 48. Remember that Patrick would have spoken to the Irish in Gaelic, whereas he wrote his Confession and Letter in Latin for a British audience.
3.R.P.C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick (New York: The Seabury Press), 1983, p. 105.
4.William Henry Scott, “St. Patrick’s Missionary Methods,” The International Review of Missions, 50, 146 (April, 1961).