Patrick and His Mission

Patrick and His Mission

Every year, we read articles about the “real” Saint Patrick – the one who didn’t drive out snakes and didn’t use a shamrock to explain the Trinity. His own account of his life, expressed in his Confessions, has become better known, but is still not commonly read. Yet, it holds much interesting information about this fervent missionary.

Early Life

Born around 389 in a town by the west coast of Britain, Patrick was raised in an affluent Christian family. His father Calpornius was a land-owner and a deacon in the church, who held a position of responsibility in the local government. He lived in a Roman-style villa and had slaves to serve on him.

Everything changed when a band of raiders landed in Patrick’s town and kidnapped sixteen-year old Patrick and a few others in order to sell them as slaves in Ireland. Patrick was bought and assigned to the task of sheep-herder.

Apparently, by that time, Patrick had rejected his Christian faith, but his long hours tending sheep gave him a chance to reflect on what he had been taught. He spent much of his time in prayer (up to a hundred times a day, in fact). This lasted for six years, until he heard in a dream a voice telling him it was time to go home.

Escaping was a dangerous choice. Runaway slaves were usually killed. But the dream convinced Patrick that God would assist him. After a month’s long trek across Ireland (about 180 miles), Patrick reached the sea. By that time, he was probably exhausted and emaciated by the lack of food. Convincing a captain to take him back to Britain was not an easy task.

Eventually, the captain of a ship agreed, maybe with the assumption that free labor, even from a frail young man, was still valuable at a time when many sailors died at sea. Patrick saw it as an answer to his fervent prayers.

A Difficult Calling

Patrick’s overjoyed parents must have been shocked when, a few years after arriving back at home, he expressed his desire to return to Ireland. He had received a vision, he said, of a man named Victoricus who begged him to bring the gospel to the Irish. At first, he didn’t want to do it, but in the end he yielded.

Some time, either before or after this vision, he was trained for the ministry of the gospel. He appears to have also studied in Gaul (today’s France), and learned from the example of French bishops such as Martin of Tours and Ninian. Eventually, he was ordained and returned to Ireland as missionary. We don’t know if he became a bishop before or after arriving in Ireland.

            Patrick’s six-year captivity in Ireland had prepared him for this mission. He knew the language and customs of the country, and could relate to the people. He reaped both joys, with the baptism of “many thousands,”[1] and innumerable sorrows, including beatings, verbal abuses, threats, a kidnapping, and an imprisonment.

“I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here,” he wrote. But he did so gladly. “If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name.”[2]

            Some of the persecution came from the kings of the tribes he visited, or from their druids. As most missionaries before him, Patrick presented the gospel first to the rulers (in Ireland, tribal kings), in hope that they would accept it and encourage their people to do the same, or that they would at least allow him to preach. In several occasions, he had to give the kings gifts of money or gold.

Some kings welcomed him, and even allowed their sons to travel with him to help him along the way. But not everyone was so accommodating. The Irish tribes (between 100 and 150 in number) were in constant war with each other, and a man going from tribe to tribe was seen with great suspicion.  

Once, some kings robbed Patrick and his companions and threw them in prison. “[They] very much wanted to kill me,” Patrick said, “but the time had not yet come.”[3] The missionaries were freed after two weeks, and their goods were returned to them. Patrick doesn’t explain how. He just says, “The Lord set me free.”[4]

But the persecution was not exclusive of pagans. Even many church leaders resented Patrick’s work in Ireland, possibly because of his limited education. “They even told stories among themselves behind my back.” Patrick didn’t seem to resent them. “It was not that they were malicious – they just did not understand,” he explained, “as I myself can testify, since I was just an unlearned country person.”[5] In reality, Patrick had a good education, but might have seen himself disadvantaged in comparison with other church leaders.

His Confessions were written to the bishops of Britain who were leveling other accusations against him, including the record of what they considered financial irregularities. For example, on one occasion, Patrick refused to take gifts and jewelry from some widows who meant them as offerings to the church. The bishops in Britain, who – as sending officers – would have partaken of these offerings, thought he had no business refusing them.

But Patrick knew the situation in Ireland much better than these bishops. Taking offerings from widows, he believed, would have given occasion of scandal to many pagan leaders of Ireland, who were watching him closely to find reasons to accuse him.

Preaching the Gospel

            Patrick knew he was divinely “called and destined to preach the gospel … to the very ends of the earth”[6] (Ireland was seen as the furthest north-west corner of the Roman Empire) and for the rest of his life.[7] Because of this, he kept faithful to this calling in spite of his desire to return to England to visit his family, or Gaul to visit the churches where he had spent some time. He prayed, “May God not let it come about that I would suffer the loss of his people who have become his in the furthermost parts of the earth.”[8]

            The gospel he preached was conform to the teachings of the 325 Council of Nicea – a Father eternal and unbegotten, a Son eternal and “begotten in an indescribable way before every beginning,” who has “overcome death” for our sake, and a Holy Spirit equally eternal “who makes believers and those who listen to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ.”[9]

These are all orthodox Christian teachings, with no hint of the modalistic heresy that some have attributed to Patrick (by saying he used a shamrock to explain the Trinity as functioning as three different “modes”). In fact, the story of the shamrock is not found until the seventeenth century.

Protecting the Flock

Patrick’s care for his disciples included a defense of their freedom, when a British king named Coroticus kidnapped some of Patrick’s disciples and kidnapped others in order to sell them as slaves. Coroticus was a Christian but his actions didn’t exhibit Christian behavior, and Patrick called him to task in a long, indignant letter, demanding his disciples’ freedom.

He also exhorted other Christians not to have any communion with Coroticus and his men until they repented. “I ask most of all that all the holy and humble of heart should not fawn on such people, nor even share food or drink with them, nor accept their alms, until such time as they make satisfaction to God in severe penance and shedding of tears, and until they set free the men-servants of God and the baptized women servants of Christ, for whom he died and was crucified.”[10]

There is no indication that the letter worked. Being British, Coroticus was under the supervision of the British bishops, who apparently objected to Patrick’s meddling.

Patrick left a great legacy in Ireland. He was not the first one to preach the gospel there, but was the first to reach the most remote areas. He was also one of the most active missionaries, founding monasteries where – besides the usual disciplines of work and prayer – monks learned to read and write Latin in order to understand the Scriptures, and passed on that instruction to others.

As it was in other places at that time, these monasteries offered other services to the local populations, and became centers of cultural and social life. Patrick’s monasteries provided a model for later Irish missionaries, including the great monastic founder Columba. For these and many other reasons, Patrick deserves to be remembered for who he really was.

[2] Ibid., 27 (also 50).

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 46

[6] St. Patrick, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, 8,

[7] Patrick, Confessions, 43

[8] Ibid., 58. See also Patrick, Coroticus, 9

[9] Patrick, Confessions, 4

[10] Patrick, Coroticus, 7.


Simonetta Carr