By Kelly Haugh
Every March 17, millions of people toast Saint Patrick with a few too many green beers, but who exactly are they celebrating? The legend most people know is that St. Patrick famously drove the snakes from the Irish isle, with the snakes representing the heathen pagans, and he brought Christianity to their shores. But the true story of St. Patrick is far more interesting and harrowing than that.
Patricius, the man who would become St. Patrick, was born in the Roman-ruled province of Britain around A.D. 390. At the tender age of 16 he was kidnapped from his parents’ villa by Irish pirates and transported across the sea to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. He spent the next six years forced to live a bleak and lonely existence tending his master’s sheep until, spurred on by a dream, he was finally able to escape and make his way back home.
It was during this time as a slave that would forever alter the course of Patrick’s life. “Patrick didn’t always believe God existed,” Dr. Ian Murphy, professor of religious studies at PSNK, explained. “It was while tending sheep on the mountainside that he came to know Christ.”
Upon his return to Britain, Patrick chose to dedicate his life to God and received his education from several monasteries throughout Europe. It was after he received his training that Patrick made the remarkable decision to return to Ireland in an attempt to bring Christianity to the very pagan land that had enslaved him.
How did he come to this selfless decision?
“Patrick experienced a vision in which an Irish man handed him a letter entitled ‘The Voice of the Irish,’” Dr. Murphy explained. “As he read the letter in his vision, he imagined hearing Irish people invite him, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’”
Because of this divine vision, St. Patrick was able to expand the borders of Christianity farther than anyone had before. This was no easy task, and it came at great risk to Patrick himself. Ireland at this time was the wild west of Europe and was populated by fierce Celtic tribes said to practice strange pagan rituals, including human sacrifice. Their reputation was so feared that even the great Julius Caesar had refused to expand the boarders of the Roman Empire by attempting to conquer Ireland.
Trying to change the pagan beliefs that had survived in Ireland for thousands of years may have seemed like an impossible or even suicidal endeavor, but Patrick was able to persevere. Through his ministry, he was able to convert an untold number to Christianity, ushering in a new, devout era in Ireland and forever changing both the island and the future of Christianity.
St. Patrick was such an amazing individual that he single-handedly saved the very people who had captured and enslaved him as a teenager.
“That kind of love—love for one’s enemies—is not of this world,” said Dr. Murphy, adding, “And a world sick of religious fakes and dime-a-dozen hypocrites has an example in St. Patrick of a man who practiced what he preached. And Patrick didn’t boast about it; in fact, the first two paragraphs of his Confessions state humbly: ‘My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.’”
That’s who we celebrate every March 17 with our parades of green and too much imbibing.