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Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

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Who was St. Patrick?

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

Long before St. Patrick's Day was a celebration of all things Irish, it was a Christian holy day, dedicated to a marvelous Christian man by the name of Patrick. Just who was this Patrick?

Patrick (390-460) is rightly credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland from 430 on. He was one of the greatest Christian missionaries of all time. Much of what we know of him comes from an autobiographical work he wrote called Confessions.

Patrick was a Christian of Celtic ancestry who had been born in the western part of Britain. His father had been a deacon and his grandfather a presbyter before him. At age 16 he was captured by pirates and was sold into slavery in Ireland. At this time, though a few scattered Christians lived in Ireland, the land was predominately pagan, divided among numerous tribal groups that often warred against each other. After he had escaped from slavery, he tells us that he had a dream in which he was called to return to Ireland to convert the Irish to Christianity. Years later, after being ordained as a presbyter, and then a bishop, he returned to Ireland in 430, where he began his work, which was hugely successful. As was to later happen among the Franks, Patrick preached the Gospel to the clan leaders. Once they were converted, their subjects would often convert in masse.

Because of Patrick's work, the Irish were the first people in the west to become Christian without having been in the Roman Empire. Later, between the sixth and ninth centuries, Ireland became a missionary center from which missionary monks brought the Gospel to the non-Christians living on the European mainland. With this in view, it is correct to say that the Christianization of Europe owed much to Patrick, both directly and indirectly.

Sources: P. C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of St. Patrick (New York, 1983); Joseph H. Lynch, The Medieval Church: A Brief History (London, 1992)