Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day. Folks will wear green to avoid being pinched. Protestants don’t revere saints, but St. Patrick seems to be a different story. Let’s explore why.
We know something about St. Patrick. He lived around the second half of the fifth century in Ireland. His life in shorthand form is an interesting one.
At 16, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates from his home in Britain and taken as a slave to Ireland, looking after animals; he lived there for six years before escaping and returning to his family.
After becoming a Roman Catholic priest and moving up through the ranks of the church hierarchy, he voluntarily returned to northern and western Ireland. In later life, he served as a bishop, but little is known about the places where he worked. By the seventh century, he had already come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.
One of my good friends and colleague, Rev. Rod Newman, is a bit of an expert in Celtic Christianity and I recently asked him some questions about St. Patrick.
When I asked him about what we might learn from Patrick about our own discipleship, he suggested that it has to do with forgiveness. “One of the most admirable aspects of Patrick is that fact that he … returned to Ireland to bring the Gospel to the very people who had enslaved him. This is putting Jesus’ command to love our enemies in action,” Newman said.
But he was also very outspoken in his condemnation of slavery and called out those in power who abused people and engaged in social reforms.
I also asked Newman about what he was thinking about these days regarding Celtic Christianity. He said, “I’m very interested in how the Celts understood church. All their churches were small in number on purpose. If it got too big, a few were sent out to start one somewhere else.
“This emphasis on small, vibrant communities of mutual care and outward mission offers inspiration for our current situation. How can we see our smaller congregations as strengths,” he wonders. As a denominational executive who works with small membership churches, this has exciting possibilities for church planting and expansion.
Finally, I asked my friend about what drew him to the Celtic form of Christianity for which Patrick and others in Ireland are known. He shared from his heart about a spiritual valley he was in and from which he wanted to be lifted.
“I was blown away when I learned that they understood sin not as a crime to be punished but a wound to be healed. Having been raised in a guilt and shamed-based version of Christianity this was life-giving. I could say it gave my faith back to me but it feels more like it allowed me to claim the faith I had all along,” he said.
Patrick lived out the commission Jesus gave to his disciples. Recorded in Mark 16:15, we read these instructions, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” That is exactly what the patron saint of Ireland did.
The United Methodist News Service did an article titled “What St. Patrick can teach United Methodists.” I encourage you to read it: