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Saint Patrick: The Amazing Impact of One Believer

Despite the danger of being pulled into slavery, Patrick obeyed the call of God to return to Ireland, bearing the light of the Gospel.

As parents, we can sometimes become discouraged as we search for role models to share with our children – especially those from our own times. Thankfully, history provides us with the stories of women and men of faith who gave their lives to see the cause of Christ and of liberty proclaimed in their lifetimes. One of these heroes is Patrick, the man who brought the Gospel to Ireland.

Born in Britain in A.D. 390, the historical person we know as Saint Patrick was raised in a Christian family. His grandfather had been a Catholic priest and his father served as a deacon. But Patrick had little interest in God or religion in his early years.

At only 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by marauders in his homeland of Britain (it is believed he was from either modern Wales or Scotland) and forced into slave labor in faraway Ireland.

Patrick’s world was violently altered when he was carried across the sea to serve as a slave in the pagan wilderness of Ireland. For the next six grueling years, Patrick was held in bondage as a slave, tending sheep. Alone in a foreign land with no hope of escaping slavery, Patrick cried out to God for deliverance.

In his famous Confession of Saint Patrick, he wrote of how this dark time in his life drove him to a relationship with God. “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…”

In answer to his prayers, God revealed Himself to Patrick in a dream. It was there one night in his sleep that he heard a voice saying: “‘You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country.’ Again, after a short while, I heard a someone saying to me: ‘Look – your ship is ready.’”

With this vision in mind, Patrick escaped and traveled 200 miles across Ireland to the west coast where he found a ship set to sail for England. At first the captain refused to take him aboard. But after Patrick spent time in desperate prayer, somehow the heart of the captain softened, and Patrick was invited aboard.

A New Home and a New Life

Patrick was joyfully reunited with his parents in Britain. “A few years later I was again with my parents in Britain. They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again.” He remained with his family for more than a decade and during that time studied to be a priest.

For 12 years he studied under his mentor, St. Germain, the bishop of Auxerre. In time, Patrick rose to the position of bishop himself. His ministry prospered in his native land, but then God intervened in a way that both surprised and troubled him.

One night he received a message in a dream from the people who had once enslaved him. “I saw, in a vision in the night,” Patrick later wrote, “a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with so many letters they could not be counted. He gave me one of these, and I read the beginning of the letter, 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…”

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A Slave of Christ

Despite the danger of being pulled once again into slavery, Patrick decided to obey the call of God to return to Ireland in 432 A.D., bearing the light of the Gospel. He recorded his sentiments on the decision: “I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved — whatever may come my way.

Once again, Patrick crossed the Irish Sea, this time to bring the light of the Gospel to 5th Century pagan Ireland. Bishop Patrick faced danger, not only from the druids and clannish warlords, but by the Irish nobility who saw him as a foreign threat.

In addition to enduring public mockery and scorn, Patrick was beaten by ruffians and harassed by royalty. Yet in the face of persecution, this heroic man of faith persevered.

At that time, the people of Ireland worshipped the gods of sky, earth, and water. Patrick understood his challenge would be to introduce them to a loving God who created all these things – and who cared for each of them as well. The druid magicians had warned the king to stop Patrick before his message would change Ireland forever. King Laoghaire ignored their warning and Christianity continued to grow because of Patrick’s witness.

A showdown was inevitable, and it occurred on Patrick’s first Easter in Ireland.

To celebrate the coming of spring, once a year the druid magicians and shamans joined the Irish nobility on the royal hill of Tara to light a fire in the name of King Laeghaire. Throughout the land, everyone was ordered to douse their home fires and no other lights were allowed to burn at the same time. Each home was to be relit from this one central fire.

As fate would have it, Patrick’s first Easter as a missionary to Ireland fell on the same day that the druid fire was to be lit. To celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and in defiance of the king’s decree, Patrick lit a fire at the monastery on the hill of Slane on Easter eve – before the druid fire could be lit. This fire blazed brightly across the valley, clearly visible from Tara.

Upon seeing this fire burning on the hill of Slane, the chief druid of the ancient Gaelic capital turned to the king and warned that if the flame were not extinguished that night, the fire of Christianity would never go out in Ireland.  

Dragged before the high king of Tara, Patrick was threatened with death. He calmly explained to the king that he was bringing a new light to Ireland, the light of Christ, the Savoir of the world. Remarkably, King Laeghaire was so impressed by Patrick’s brave witness and his eloquence that he allowed him to live. In a miraculous turn of events, Patrick received permission from the king to continue sharing the message of Jesus.

The Church is Planted in Ireland

Pressing forward with his calling to bear the light of Christ, Patrick built the first Irish Christian church on the site of the present-day St. Patrick’s Memorial Church in Saul. It is considered the birthplace of Irish Christianity. In 29 years of ministry, Patrick baptized more than 120,000 Irish citizens and planted approximately 300 churches.

Patrick further cemented his historical importance when he drew upon his experience in bondage to write and distribute an eloquent argument against slavery and the slave trade.

As he traveled throughout Ireland, sharing the Gospel with old and young, rich and poor, powerful and weak, Patrick prayed this prayer, which is now famous throughout the world: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”

As we strive to “train up our children in the way he should go,” (Proverbs 22:6), we would do well to highlight Christian heroes like Saint Patrick, whose brave witness and tireless efforts continue to bear fruit as a beacon of light to this day.

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