Have you ever worn green for St. Patrick’s Day—or been pinched for forgetting? The wearing of the green is a common custom on March 17. But do you know the life story of Patrick, to whom the day is dedicated? Many do not. Amid the fun and festivities of St. Patrick’s Day, many have forgotten the faith and courage of the man whom we celebrate. Let me introduce you to the man behind St. Patrick’s Day.
Who is the Man Behind St. Patrick’s Day?
Patrick was born Maewyn Succat about 389 in a region of Great Britain that at the time was under Roman rule. He was not Irish as most people think but was probably of Celtic descent from Wales or Scotland. (The Celts [keltz] were early Indo-European peoples that had scattered throughout Europe. They were known for intricate patterns in their art and weaponry.)
Patrick’s parents were strong Christians. His father was a church deacon, and his grandfather was a pastor. But Patrick didn’t share the faith of his family. He was the type of kid who would rather play on the beach than go to church with his parents.
One tragic day, Patrick’s youthful rebellion cost him his freedom. While playing on the rocky shores of the British coast at the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates. Imagine one minute hanging out on the beach with your friends and the next minute being thrown on a pirate ship in chains! Patrick didn’t know if he would ever see his home or family again.
The pirates sold Patrick to other Irishmen, who kept him in slavery for six years! Like the Prodigal Son in the parable from Luke 15, Patrick’s job was taking care of animals. In the first year of Patrick’s imprisonment, he thought long and hard about the things his parents had taught him. He especially thought about the faith he had rejected.
Patrick’s Conversion in His Own Words
In his words, this is what happened:
I was sixteen years old and knew not the true God; but in that strange land the Lord opened my unbelieving eyes, and, altogether late, I called my sins to mind, and was converted with my whole
heart to the Lord my God, who regarded my low estate, had pity on my youth and ignorance, and consoled me as a father consoles his children.”
From this testimony, we gather that Patrick became a genuine Christian as a teenager. For the next several years, he learned how to pray as he never had before. Naturally, his main prayer request was for his freedom. Though some never escape slavery, Patrick did! Claiming that he heard a voice in a dream telling him of a ship ready to take him home, Patrick left his master and raced toward the sea nearly 200 miles away. He found a ship with a captain willing to take him aboard as a dog keeper. Without hesitation, Patrick took the job— hoping it would eventually lead him home.
After many trials and tribulations, Patrick’s wishes came true, and the day came when he finally made it back to Great Britain. Can you imagine his parents’ reaction to seeing him again? For six years, they didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. And to make the reunion even more special, Patrick’s parents learned of their son’s conversion. I suspect his return home, as well as his new faith, brought unimaginable joy and was another example of God answering the prayers of parents for their children.
As great as it was to be home, Patrick found himself having strange dreams at night. He dreamed that Irish children were calling him back to Ireland, a nation steeped in pagan thought! In his dreams, he was teaching them about God. You would think that after spending six grueling years in Ireland as a slave, Patrick would have absolutely no desire to return. But you know what? He did want to return. That’s perhaps one reason why he’s so widely celebrated.
By now, I hope you see why it’s so important to me to show you the man behind St. Patrick’s day…but the story is not over!
Patrick Returns to Ireland
In 432, after receiving training as a priest in France, Patrick returned to Ireland. He returned to minister to the people who had once held him captive. He returned with a heart full of love and forgiveness. It was a remarkable step of faith. For nearly 30 years, Patrick ministered and preached the Gospel in Ireland. To help you appreciate this difficult task, let me describe the warring, pagan mindset of the Irish at that time.
First, for hundreds of years, tribal chiefs ruled over Ireland, giving rise to numerous tales of fact and folklore. These tribal chiefs of legendary status didn’t get along very well, so they fought war after war. In fact, war was so common to the Irish that soldiers were buried standing up and facing their enemies. Why? So that even in death, they were ready for battle!
Second, the Irish are known as a superstitious people. Historically, they believed in all kinds of magic, from which come the fanciful stories of fairies, elves, and leprechauns. One religion in ancient Ireland was that of the druids. White-robed druid priests worshiped the sun, the moon, and the stars and performed magic rituals. (In fact, many of today’s Halloween symbols come from the druids.)
Well, long before Patrick, Christian missionaries from Great Britain had tried to share the Gospel of Christ in Ireland, but with little success. They had difficulty relating to Irish customs. But Patrick, because of his years of imprisonment in Ireland, found it easy to communicate with the warring, superstitious Irish. For example, legend says he used the three-leaf shamrock (or clover) to teach the concept of the Trinity—the three persons of the Godhead.
As a result of Patrick’s preaching and teaching, many grew to love him. They knew he had returned to them out of compassion, and they eagerly embraced his message. But not all the Irish would love Patrick so easily. His greatest opposition was from the druid priests and tribal chiefs. He wrote in his autobiography that at least 12 times his life was in danger; that he was seized on numerous occasions; and that he was held captive! I wonder if he had flashbacks to his former days of slavery. Despite those troubles, Patrick persevered in his mission. It has been said that he “found Ireland all heathen and left it all Christian.”2
In fact, Patrick started at least three hundred churches, baptized approximately twenty thousand people, and prayed for miracles to touch the lost and hurting. His ministry was so incredible that many legends and stories of Patrick grew that may or may not have been true. It seems that the love of fanciful stories never completely left the Irish people, although they grew to be a strong Christian nation.
It is no wonder that Patrick has been so well remembered. Now that you know more about the man behind St. Patrick’s Day, I hope that on March 17, you do more than wear green for “good luck.” I hope you remember the faith and courage of Patrick, who ministered to the country of his one-time captors and boldly preached the Gospel of Christ.
Download The Story Behind St. Patrick’s Day activity sheets to go with this lesson: