BLOG 3/16/18. ST. PATRICK: GREEN BEER … OR MISSIONARY GIANT?
Oh, yes! Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, what with parades, green outfits, green beer, and all the rest. And I’m all for all that fun. But, then, being a student of the church’s mission (i.e. being a missiologist) it is remarkable how there can be so much mindless celebration of such a remarkable figure. All the myths surrounding Patrick, such as ridding Ireland of snakes, etc. are just that: myths. What is huge about Patrick is that he is one of the missionary giants of the church’s history. In that he lived in the 5th century, and in a period when there were few written records, there are some things we know because of his legacy in Irish monasticism.
Patrick’s own conversion to Christianity is somewhat obscure. What we do know is that he was British, and that his parents were Scottish. In his youth, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. Somewhere in that sojourn he turned to prayer, and then along the way, he escaped and fled back to his homeland, and then had a vision of becoming God’s messenger to those who had been his slave masters in Ireland. Again, we’re dealing with very shadowy resources. We know that he spent a brief time in France. We also know that there was little communication with Rome and the Vatican at that early period, so that Patrick was virtually on his own to carry out his priestly vocation.
The reality is, however, that he did establish a monastic order in Ireland, which was also a vital missionary breeding ground. We moderns do often realize that in those early years of the church’s history, monasteries were not only centers of Christian contemplative orders, but were major agents in the missionary outreach of the church. So, if you look at the fruit of Patrick’s work you discover that in the generations which followed, it was this Irish monastic influence which not only brought the gospel to Ireland, but was significantly responsible for the evangelizing of Great Britain, and then through St. Columba, the bringing of the gospel to a significant portion of Europe.
A couple of resources that you might want to look into: one would be the very readable account of this phenomenon by Thomas Cahill: How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995). This is a well-researched account of the missional and cultural impact of Patrick and his legacy. The other you can access through Google, and is entitled: St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which occasionally finds its way into present day liturgies. The story/myth is that each day when St. Patrick laced up his tunic, he made each course of the lacing to be a reminder of his formative Christian beliefs. I would copy it here but it is quite too long—but well worth your time. And the notion of having a daily discipline of reminding oneself of the essential beliefs of one’s faith is most commendable.
That’s a glimpse. Enjoy your green beer, your corned beef and cabbage, … but remember: Patrick’s greatness is in the fact that he brought the Christian faith to Ireland, produced a whole new culture there, and launched one of the great missionary movements of the church’s history. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
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