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Spiritual Heir

When, in 1792, William Carey drew up his epochal work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, he gave a sketch of the history of missions. At one point, he distinguished between those missions that sought to expand the dominion of “popery,” usually “by force of arms,” and those that genuinely extended the kingdom of Christ. Among the former he listed the Roman mission of Augustine of Canterbury and Paulinus; among the latter it is the name of Patrick that receives the most attention: “The next year (435) Patrick was sent from Scotland to preach to the Irish, who before his time were totally uncivilized, and, some say, cannibals; he however, was useful, and laid the foundations of several churches in Ireland.”

This statement would appear to indicate that the evangelistic success of Patrick, and his spiritual heirs in the Celtic Church, was a source of encouragement to Carey. How much more Carey knew about the historical Patrick is not clear; but he would certainly have been thrilled and inspired by Patrick’s evangelistic zeal and God-centered spirituality.

Patrick’s World and Mission

Patrick was born around 390 AD in a place that was a part of the Roman Empire. With the way Patrick is linked to all things Irish, it is hard to believe that Patrick was not born in Ireland, but he wasn’t! He was born into a Christian home in what is now Wales, or southern Scotland, or possibly even England (to the horror of every loyal Irish patriot). When he was sixteen years of age he was taken captive by Irish pirates and, as a slave, lived in Ireland for the next six years or so. It was there in Ireland that he was converted with, in his words, “all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance.”

When Patrick was in his twenties, he escaped from captivity in Ireland and went back to his home in what had been the Roman province of Britannia. Here he would have stayed, glad as he was to get back to his family and friends. But not long after he got back, he had a dream in which he saw the Irish coming to him, asking him to return to Ireland to presumably share with them the good news about Jesus Christ.

Patrick returned to the north of Ireland in the early 430s, where he stayed for the rest of his life. As he wrote: “I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers, bearing the reproach of my going abroad and many persecutions even unto bonds, and to give my free birth for the benefit of others.”

For the rest of the post…

Monday, March 17, 2014

The arrival of St. Patrick’s Day will elicit various celebrations. For instance, there will be much made of the uniqueness of the Irish race but, at least for the duration of the holiday, the non-Irish are invited to participate in the fun: sporting green clothing, wearing leprechaun decorations, pinching, eating corned beef sandwiches, politically-correct parades, and painting big green shamrocks in the public streets…usually outside the taverns.

It’s all strange behavior and quite irrelevant to the memory of St. Patrick. Indeed, when one bothers to look beneath the pagan coverings of St. Patrick’s Day to the man himself, one finds a truly noble Christian hero. So, let’s take a look at the historical figure of Saint Patrick. Let’s ignore the silliness and learn the lessons God would teach us about a faithful, zealous servant of Christ.

You might know the legends – how Patrick expelled the snakes from Ireland; how he explained the Trinity by reference to the shamrock; and so on. But the historical Patrick is more intriguing and inspirational than even the Patrick of legend.

The first revealing fact is that Patrick was was not Irish. He was British by birth, the son of a decurio (town councilor) who served as a deacon in the church. His grandfather was also a man of the cloth. While still a youth, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and reduced to slavery there. It was a life devoted to tending his master’s goat and sheep herds but Patrick finally began to find a measure of comfort and strength through prayer. This was in dramatic contrast to his earlier years in Britain when, as Patrick himself described it,  he “knew not the true God” and did not heed the “clerical admonitions for salvation.”

Patrick escaped from his slavery — after six years — and made his way to a port some 200 miles away on the southeast coast of Ireland. He persuaded some sailors to take him with them, but it would still be a long time before Patrick reached home. In fact, there were various adventures in foreign lands ahead, including days where he nearly starved to death. But, God was gracious to him, and Patrick finally returned to his family, though very much changed. He had embraced the Christian faith of his family by his own convictions now. And he embraced too the call of service in Christ’s kingdom.

Patrick first received a basic clerical training. This would have included instruction using the Latin Bible (which he came to know well) but it was not a highly academic education, the lack of which he always regretted, and for which he was sometimes criticized in later years by his enemies. His own Latin writings are certainly inelegant, even at times rustic, but they reflect a purity and power arising from a heart dedicated to the Lord.

Then, in a remarkable display of compassion and courage, Patrick decided to return to Ireland. By his own choice, he returned to the land where he had been worked as a slave, this time to bring the liberating message of the gospel. This was in 435.

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