Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Introducing St. Patrick

St. Patrick was a missionary to Ireland around the year 400 A.D. In the century before his birth, Christianity had become not only legal, but also the official religion of the Roman Empire. Patrick was born into a religious family in the Roman province of Britannia (now England), but he wasn't very interested in spiritual things as a young boy. When he was about fourteen Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland, a wild pagan land that even the Romans never attempted to conquer. There Patrick became a slave and a shepherd, and during the long lonely days with the sheep, he remembered the God his family worshiped, and he began to pray. In Patrick's own words:

There the Lord brought me to a sense of my unbelief, that I might, even
at a late season, call my sins to remembrance, and turn with all my heart to the
Lord my God, who regarded my low estate, and, taking pity on my youth and
ignorance, guarded me, before I understood anything, or had learned to
distinguish between good and evil, and strengthened and comforted me as a father
does his son.

Eventually, he escaped from Ireland and returned to his home. But he could not forget the Emerald Isle, and he began to have dreams about Irish people calling him to come and tell them about the true God.

Patrick studied for the ministry and sought the approval of the church in Rome. Church denominations and mission organizations did not yet exist, but Rome was the superpower government of its day and Christianity was its official religion. Thus, having the approval of the church at Rome was helpful if one was setting out to convert a barbarian nation. Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary—one of the first missionaries to venture beyond the reaches of the Roman Empire. There may have been a few Christians scattered through Ireland before Patrick's arrival; some historians think these Christians asked the Roman church to send a missionary to build churches and oversee the congregations.

Though some pagans opposed Patrick, many Irish people responded to him and believed in Jesus Christ. Patrick founded monasteries throughout Ireland, which were apparently more like our modern seminaries than to the later medieval monasteries. These institutions trained men to minister—and did not require their students to be unmarried or to take vows of poverty. Later, Irish monks began monasteries in Europe, where Scriptures were copied and preserved throughout the middle ages.

The Irish Christians loved and respected Patrick, and after his death, fanciful tales began to spring up about his life; centuries later it is a little difficult to sort out exactly which elements of these stories are true, but Patrick's own short autobiography did survive, known as “The Confession of St. Patrick.”

The prayer I chose as the outline for this study is a modern translation of a segment of a longer poem often attributed to Patrick. The entire poem is known as “The Breastplate of St. Patrick” or “The Lorica of St. Patrick”. Before their conversion to Christianity, the people of Ireland composed many poems known as “loricae” asking for the protection of their pagan gods. Patrick's poem was something new, a prayer for protection addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ. Several accounts of Patrick's life state that he prayed this prayer while being pursued by pagans, and that while he prayed, his attackers passed right by him, seeing a herd of deer instead of Patrick and his friends.

Patrick wrote a short autobiography that he called his “Confession”. He was very humble about his success as an evangelist, often lamenting his lack of education (his studies were interrupted by his years in slavery). He marveled that God had chosen him to be a missionary:

Who am I, O Lord, or what is my calling, that Thou hast granted me so much of
Thy Divine presence? So that at this day I can constantly rejoice among the
nations, and magnify Thy name wherever I may be, not only in prosperity, but in
adversity [teaching me] that I ought to accept with a contented mind whatever
may befall me, whether good or evil, and always give thanks to God, who showed
me that I should believe in Him for ever.

This is an excerpt from Sacred Signposts, Chapter One, copyright 2009. (You can read Patrick's Confession here.)

No comments:

Post a Comment