St. Patrick and Why Mission Matters
Tomorrow, March 17th, is the feast day of St. Patrick, a saint who is celebrated widely not just in Ireland but all over the world. It is a day of celebration that is marked by parades, bands, music, costumes, green lights, beer, and rivers that are all a feature of the celebrations. Yet behind all these externals, there lies the story of a remarkable man who faced a truly daunting task: proposing the Christian faith to the pagan Irish almost sixteen centuries ago. So dangerous was the task that many questioned the whole point of going to where even the Romans had refused to invade; such was the uncivilized reputation of the Irish at the time. The outcome was one of the most remarkable success stories of the early Church, one that resulted not only in the Irish being converted to the faith but them becoming missionaries of the faith themselves. Here I explore how St. Patrick can help us approach the new evangelization, with the hope of the same success in the present as he enjoyed in the past. I also explore how St. Patrick reminds us of a fundamental truth of our faith: that mission matters.
Saint Patrick (c. 385-462) was born on the west coast of Britain in the late fourth century, the son of a deacon who also acted as a Roman curial official. At the tender age of sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland where he was forced into slavery. Separated from his family and immersed in suffering, he came to know God’s friendship, to identify with Christ’s closeness, and to understand himself in a new way. After six years he escaped back to Britain and was reunited with his family, who begged him never to leave them again. It was a promise Patrick could not keep, for shortly afterwards, he began to sense a powerful call to return to the land of his captivity and to bring the Gospel to the Irish. He sensed this call in a dream with the words, “O holy boy, we beg you to come again and walk among us.” Patrick responded to this call, which he believed had come from God, to return to Ireland and began to preach the Gospel. In his own words, he explains why he returned to Ireland: “for the love of neighbours, sons and daughters”; because of his “zeal for God”; and for “the truth of Christ.” (Epist. 1. Patrick wrote two letters. The first is called the Epistola and the second called his Confessio.)
There in Ireland in a pagan culture, he faced many difficulties and dangers. He was among a people many considered uncivilized and beyond redemption. He suffered persecutions and further captivity, and he expected to suffer martyrdom at any time. He described himself as a “lowly, unlearned exile” (Confess. 2, 12), freely admitting his own limitations. Yet, despite these obstacles, Patrick testified to remarkable missionary successes. He baptized thousands and witnessed to how the early Christian community in Ireland was “increasing beautifully” through his preaching (Epist. 12).
History testifies that Patrick’s efforts began a chain of events that not only led to the Christianization of Ireland but to the influx of Irish missionaries into mainland Europe, where they made an immense contribution to the project of civilization. Missionaries including the monastic saints Columbanus (c. 540-615) and Malachy (1094-1148) brought key elements of Christian faith that promoted ecclesial and social unity, which were absorbed by cultures in a way that fostered education, virtue, and basic human rights. These Irish missionaries preached and taught that faith in the Trinity expressed itself in social harmony, the truth of Christ, and love for God’s people. This was the legacy of these Irish men and women of courage, and it originated with Patrick, their father in faith. Over the centuries, thousands of Irish people brought their Christian faith with them around the world as they left their homeland in search of a better life. For this reason, St. Patrick is celebrated not just by the Irish but by churches around the world, who thank God for the gift of faith received by their Irish ancestors, who brought the faith to other cultures and peoples after the example of Patrick himself.
At this time of opportunity for evangelization, what the story of Patrick teaches us with renewed force and effect is simply that mission matters. God in his freedom did not have to involve us in his work of salvation, but he chose to do so. He desires that all peoples share fully in his divine life and asks us to help offer what he wants to give. God has given us the dignity of being partners with him in bringing his saving love to the ends of the earth. Therefore, in many ways the salvation of others depends on our response to be people of mission.
Patrick had an acute awareness that this was true. He speaks of his mission as “this holy and wonderful work” (Confess. 34) and of his “pastoral care for the salvation of others” (Confess. 28). He describes his preaching as “acquiring people for God” (Confess. 58) and of dedicating himself to the Irish “lovingly and joyfully for their salvation” (Confess. 51). He admits his difficulties as a Christian in a pagan culture, but also his hope that through him, God’s promises would eventually be fulfilled. Despite temptation to leave the Irish, he stayed with them, for he “hoped that some of them would come to faith in Jesus Christ” (Confess. 18). He is very conscious of his own example as being in direct proportion to the prospect of people being led to Christ. He witnesses to “the faith in truth” with “sincerity of heart,” lest “the name of God be blasphemed through me” (Confess. 48). Because of the purity of his witness, Patrick saw many believers “born through” him (Confess. 38). He is “an ambassador for Christ” (Epist. 5), just as the Church is “the letter of Christ” (Confess. 11). Here is a man convinced that mission matters: that just as the Father had sent Christ into the world, so Christ had sent him to bear his saving love to the people of Ireland.
Through God’s loving call and Patrick’s generous response, the saving message of Christ not only transformed his life but an entire nation. Through the birth of a Church that was defined by mission from the beginning, Irish men and women carried the offer of God’s saving love everywhere they went in the world, convinced that, like Patrick, the kingdom of God was brought about by their presence and witness. For the Church committed to the new evangelization, this conviction of Patrick of the importance of his own role as a conduit of salvation is important. With so many waiting to hear words of hope and a reason to live, Patrick and the saints lead every Christian to understand that our response to God’s call contributes uniquely to the saving mission of the Church that seeks to make Christ known and loved throughout the world. The acceptance of the call to mission by this one man led to the conversion of a nation and the influence of millions over generations and continents. His story warns us never to underestimate the personal and unique task God has committed to each of us. For in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman: “God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission.” So if I am a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a priest, a religious, a single person, a student, or a child, my gifts and my life are at the service of his kingdom. This holds true even if we are sick or feel like we have little to do or contribute. We give all we have and God grants the increase.
As we remain focused on the new evangelization and consider the task that lies ahead, let us not be discouraged or overwhelmed. United in communion with the early saints and their courage, we renew our confidence in the Lord’s promise that he will be with us always. It is Christ who asks us to bear him to the world so that his light, truth and, word can be seen and heard. During his visit to Ireland in 1979, Saint John Paul II asked us to “remember Saint Patrick. Remember what the fidelity of just one man has meant for Ireland and the world” (Address to Seminarians, Maynooth). On his feast day, we remember Saint Patrick and give thanks for what God achieved through him. For us, may we never doubt the wonders God continues to do in our own day through men and women who share Patrick’s conviction that mission matters.