St. Patrick: Alligatus sum Spiritu

17 Mar


[This was originally written for my Church History class in graduate school at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. St. Patrick is a hero of mine… take some time to know the real St. Patrick today… and then go enjoy some good St. Patty’s Day food!]

Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed, writes Thomas Cahill in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization[1].  More than any other character in the history of Ireland, St. Patrick (c. A.D. 387-461)[2] deserves credit for this lasting revolution.  While not the first to attempt the conversion of the Irish to Christianity[3] he certainly was the most successful.  But given the history of Roman Christianity’s often violent spread, and the violent world of the Celtic Barbarians to which Patrick was a missionary, how did he succeed to bring the Gospel so successfully and so peaceably?  I will argue in this paper that it was Patrick’s unique—and by our standards, remarkably modern—approach as a missionary that allowed him to achieve so much for the advancement of the Kingdom of God to unreached peoples.  Further I will argue that there are three specific characteristics that Patrick had that uniquely shaped him for this mission: (1) his personal experience of brokenness, sin, and grace; (2) his passion for a specific group of people, as opposed to a general desire to see the Gospel spread; and (3) his clarity of missionary calling directly linked to his personal conversion and relationship with Jesus Christ.  Finally, I will argue that in Patrick we find a historical model that can and should inform our own sense of missionary work today in the twenty-first century.  The Patrick of history is very different than the Patrick of mythology—and certainly we will find that the historical saint is far more compelling a character and disciple than the mythological one is.  For Patrick, as for all committed Christians, obedience to and service of Christ was central to his life; all else about him must be understood through these lenses of faith and discipleship.

To the civilized world of the Roman Empire, Ireland seemed to be a place of pure barbarianism and danger.[4]  For this reason, few missionaries (or even tradesmen) had ventured so far north as to actually enter Ireland.  As early as a century before Patrick, however,  there was a Christian presence in Ireland.  Though small, they must have been significant enough to have their own bishop (Palladius) appointed.  But by the time Patrick arrives as a slave in Ireland, there is little of organized Christianity in the barbarian land.[5] 

Of course, the accusation of barbarism speaks to a Roman-centric bias in the Christian world.  Often pagans – unknown, outside of Roman influence and the civilization of Pax Romana – were simply dismissed as barbarians.  In truth, the social, political, religious, and economic environment of Ireland at this time is both diverse and complicated.  Made up of many tribes and subcultures, the Ireland of Patrick’s time would have been a complex world, with both areas of relative civilization, culture and advancement, as well as areas of violence, chaos, and danger.[6] The Celtic world was in many respects was ripe for missionary work.  With a population of between 200,000 and 500,000 and over 150 extended tribes, Ireland had been without significant foreign religious influence for almost 1000 years.[7]

Patrick was taken as a slave from his nominally[8] Christian family in Great Britain to Ireland around A.D. 401.[9]  Patrick describes this in isConfessio:


I Patrick, ‘a sinner’, very rustic

and the least of all the

and very contemptible in the estimation of most people,

had a father, a deacon named Calpornius,

the son of Potitus, a priest

who was in the town of Bannaventa Berniae;

he had an estate nearby,

where I was captured.

I was then almost sixteen years of age.

I was indeed ignorant of the true God,

and I was taken in captivity to Ireland…[10]

Patrick seems overly cognizant of his own limits—a sinner, rustic, simple, contemptible.  While this may reflect a sense from the Saint of his own self-awareness and humbleness[11]—or deep seeded guilt from the past—it is also a common form found in Christian literature dating back to the Apostle Paul.[12]  He also acknowledges here that while he group up in a Christian family, he was “indeed ignorant of the true God.”[13]  He appeals to his lack of theological teaching and knowledge as part of what makes his testimony so compelling:  though he know not the theological teachings, he does know God.  He writes:


As an adolescent, indeed, as an almost speechless boy,

I was captured

before I knew what I should seek

or what to avoid.

Whence therefore I blush for shame today

and I greatly fear

to expose my unlearnedness,

because I am unable ‘to unfold in speech’ to those trained in concise expression

in the way my spirit and mind desire,

and my heart’s feelings suggest.

But if, then, I had been gifted ‘just as others,’

I truly would not have remained silent ‘because of the return due’ [from me to


It is in this context that Patrick begins his story in Confessio about his own conversion, call to ministry, and testimony to the faithfulness of God.  In many respects, as a missionary, Patrick is little different from previous and following missionaries in terms of his methods.  First, he started his evangelism and missionary work by working to win over the local politicians and those in power.  In Patrick’s case, this came when he convinced King Loigare to grant legal status to Christianity.  Later, the king’s brother converted to Christianity and became a supporter of Patrick’s missionary work.[15] Second, Patrick took the time to learn the local culture, people, and language.  Having been a slave in the Irish countryside, he came familiar with the cultural and tribal landscape.[16]  This approach to incarnational evangelism has its routes in the Gospels[17] as well as Paul’s early missionary journeys.  Unlike previous missionaries who focused predominantly on “conversion numbers” (even if by force), Patrick showed a unique passion for the discipleship and spiritual formation of those he ministered to.[18]

While his methods were not entirely revolutionary or innovative, Patrick’s success was due very much to his unique character as a missionary—a character and model we can and should learn from today.  One of the most important aspects of Patrick’s compassion for lost people was his own sense and experience of brokenness, sin, and redemption.

Being a shepherd-slave during this time, as Patrick was, would have been enough to break anyone’s spirit.  Instead, Patrick allows this brokenness to drive him to constant prayer and eventual conversion:



But after I had come to Ireland,

I was herding flocks daily,

and many times a day I was praying.

More and more the love of God and fear of him came to me,

and my faith was being increased, and the spirit was being moved,

so that in one day I would say as much as a hundred prayers,

and at night nearly the same…[19]

Patrick seemed to understand that his slavery – and the slavery of his fellow Britains – was the result of sin and the rejection of God:

[A]nd I was taken in captivity to Ireland

with so many thousands of people, and deservedly so,

because ‘we turned from God’,

and ‘we did not keep watch over his precepts’,

and we did not obey our priests,

who kept warning us about our salvation…[20]

This experience had a profound effect on Patrick.  Some scholars have suggested that it is also possible that Patrick had serious and guilt-wrenching sin in his past.  Some have hypothesized that this sin was murder – probably the murder of a fellow slave.  If this is true, it would not be particularly noteworthy historically or judiciously at the time – a slave killing a fellow slave would was not a significant event.  However, it would weigh heavily on a Christians heart and become a significantly painful experience leading to both guilt and the experience of Grace.  Patrick often saw himself as fulfilling a greater mission than just his own, but rather being in the great tradition of saints past.[21]  Having great sin (even murder!) in his past would lead him to parallel his life to that of Moses (who killed a slave)[22] and Paul (who persecuted Christians and oversaw the martyrdom of Stephen)[23].  All of these experiences—separation from family, slavery, sin, forgiveness, and personal conversion—all helped shape Patrick into a person uniquely fit to evangelize the outcast, dangerous, and forgotten of Barbarian Ireland.  Furthermore, his own experience of brokenness and sin would allow him to see past and forgive his own captors.

Patrick’s escape from slavery and captivity is almost miraculous and certainly providential.  Through prayer and a vision from God, Patrick comes upon a ship sailing forth from Ireland:


And there one night in a dream

I heard a voice saying to me,

‘It is well that you are fasting, soon you will go to your own country.’

And again after a short time

I heard the answer saying to me:

‘Look, your ship is ready.’

And it was not nearby,

but was at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles;[24]


At first the captain was unwilling to take Patrick on board, but Patrick persists in prayer:


And on that day on which I arrived the ship had set out from its anchorage,

and I said that I had the wherewithal to take passage with them;

but the captain was not pleased,

and answered sharply and with indignation:

‘By no means will you try to go with us.’

And when I heard these things I left them,

in order to return to the little hut where I was staying.[25]


And it is in the persistence of prayer, that Patrick is heard and God is faithful:


And on the way back I began to pray;

and before I had finished my prayer,

I heard one of them,

Shouting vigorously after me,

‘Come quickly because these people are calling you.’

And I returned immediately to them,

and they began to say to me:

‘Come, because we are receiving you on faith,

make friends with us in any way you wish.’

And so on that day, accordingly, I refused ‘to suck their breasts’

because of the fear of God,

but rather I hoped to come to them by faith of Jesus Christ,

because they were pagans;

and thus I got my way with them,

and we set sail at once.[26]

Patrick’s confession of Christ here is noteworthy for its boldness and contrast from the Patrick who “was far from God” earlier in Confessio.  With Patrick’s long and difficult journey back to Britain – in many respects a desert journey experience – one would expect that he would stay in Britain. Instead, he receives a call from God in another vision to return to the isle of his captivity.  Patrick then goes about getting theological training and heads back to Ireland:


And there indeed ‘I saw in a vision of the night’ a man coming

as if from Ireland,

whose name [was] Victoricius,

with countless letters,

and he gave me one of them,

and I read the beginning of the letter containing ‘the Voice of the Irish’,

and as I was reading the beginning of the letter aloud

I imagined I heard, at that moment, the voice of those very people who lived  

     beside the Wood of Fochoill,

which is near the Western Sea,

and thus they cried out ‘as if with one mouth’,

‘We request you, holy boy,

that you come and walk once more among us.’

And ‘I was’ truly ‘cut to the heart’,

and I could read no further.[27]


This “cut to the heart” experience leads Patrick back to Ireland not as a slave-shepherd this time but as a shepherd of Jesus Christ—as a missionary sent by God.  “On the other hand I did not set out for Ireland of my own accord,[28]” Patrick writes.  Patrick literally feels “bound by the Spirit”[29] to return to Ireland, a sure sign of his calling and commitment to Christ.


For many missionaries at this time in history, the drive to evangelize was often more focused on number of converts and the need conquer the world with Christianity – as the great Empires of Greece and Rome had done for their causes.  But Patrick seems remarkably different in this respect.  His heart and passion was truly for people of Ireland.  He was not called simply as a missionary to the world of the unsaved, but rather to the world of lost Irish people.

As Patrick continues his journey, he develops an even clearer sense of his calling and his identity in Christ.  As his missionary work continues and grows, more and more, Patrick is compelled by God to stay in Ireland and finish the work he has been given.  His commitment to staying in Ireland is both out of his sense of debt to God–


‘I say’ enough.

But nevertheless I must not hide ‘The Gift of God’,

which has been lavished on us ‘in the land of my captivity’,

because then I earnestly sought him,

and there I found him,

and he kept me from all iniquities, this is my belief,

‘because of his indwelling Spirit’,

who ‘has worked’ in me up to this day.[30]


and from his fundamental passion for the Gospel to be spread to the people of Ireland:


But I [did it] because of the hope of eternal life,

that for the sake of it I should act with caution in all things,

so that they would not on any legal charge of unfaithfulness seize upon me

or the ministry of my slavery,

nor would I give an opportunity even in the smallest matter to unbelievers to                                                                                               

     defame or detract.[31]


Patrick’s greatest desire, indeed, is to spend the rest of his life in Ireland doing ministry—the true heart of any missionary:


And there [in Ireland] I chose ‘to spend’
it [my life] ‘until I die’,

if the Lord should grant [that] to me,

because ‘I am’ very much God’s debtor,

who has granted to me such a grace…[32]


As a result of Patrick’s passionate commitment to the people of Ireland and the well-being of these young brothers and sisters in Christ, Celtic Christianity begins to take on a different form from that of Roman Christianity.  Celtic Christianity became strongly based in the experience of community and monastic life as opposed to diocesan oversight and authority.[33]


Patrick’s success as a missionary to Ireland is unquestioned.  While he certainly did not succeed in converting all the heathens, Patrick’s mission planted almost 700 churches an ordained perhaps 1000 priests.  His missionary influence spread and many more tribes became Christianized.[34]  de Paor suggests that the route of Patrick’s success can be seen in two pillars that he built his life upon.[35]  One, humilius mea (“my lowliness”); and two,donum Dei (“the gift of God”).  de Paor argues that this is the fundamental (and intentional) structure of Confessio reflecting Patrick’s self-understanding and understanding of God.[36]  I would add a third pillar: Patrick’s passion for lost people.  Taken together – his own sense of brokenness (lowliness, to use de Paor’s language), his passion for the people of Ireland, and his sense of awe before God, and the subsequent clarity of calling that leads to – these three pillars set Patrick up as a missionary who can be truly used by God to build the Kingdom.  To say the least, Patrick was indeed “a fisher of men”[37] and a searcher of the lost.[38]  As disciples and missionaries today, we can – and should – learn from Patrick’s model.  He was strategic, yet compassionate; he was driven and passionate, yet called; and he ministered first out of his experience of Jesus Christ and then out of his own brokenness, experience of grace, and redemption.  This is a model that would be just as successful today as in Medieval, barbarian Ireland.

 Patrick’s journey in many respects is the archetypical one of a disciple and that is how he structures his Confessio.  “As with all journey-stories,” de Paor writes, “Patrick’s begins in a particular time and place, that is, with his captivity,” and then ultimately, back to his captors as a “missionary to the pagans.”[39]  Through all of us, from conversion to confession, Patrick has his eyes “fixed on Jesus, the author and perfector of his faith.”[40]  de Paor summarizes this journey perfectly:  “The journey of Patrick’s discipleship was a journey of conversion, of openness to the healing power of Jesus.  His captivity was the point of departure for his outer pilgrimage, his conversion the starting-point of his spiritual adventure.”[41]


Patrick surely understood his very life to be alligatus sum Spiritu – bound by the Spirit for the works of the Kingdom of God.  Never being discouraged or embittered by his own battles and brokenness, he became a passionate herald of hope to a land that seemed hopeless and was unheralded; and by the power and confidence of his own calling and of God’s power, he became missionary not just to a people, but to a culture and ultimately to a new world. As Patrick writes himself in his Epistola to Coroticus:


Was it that I came to Ireland without God’s [inspiration] or ‘according to the   


Who compelled me?

I am ‘bound by the Spirit’ not to see any ‘of my kindred’.

Could it be by myself alone that I exercis
e a pious act of mercy toward the pagan


who once took me captive

and wreaked havoc on the slaves and handmaids of my father’s house?

…In short I am a slave to Christ for that remote pagan people

because of the unspeakable glory ‘of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’.[42]


Indeed, unspeakable glory for both Patrick and those he reached – for the eternal life that is in Christ Jesus alone.

[1] Cahill, pg 147-148

[2] ibid, pg 232.  The range of Patrick’s birth and death seem to run from AD 387 to AD 493.  Cahill notes that Patrick was probably taken into slavery in A.D. 401 (the same year Augustine publishes his Confessions; if Patrick was “almost sixteen years of age” (Confessio 1:9), that would place his birth approximately around A.D. 385-387.

[3] Most scholars would give that credit to Palladius, a Christian Bishop


[4] Cahill, pg 75-85.

[5] De Paor, pg 23-25; also Cahill 101-108, and Staunton, pg 25-28.

[6] Staunton, pg 25-30

[7] Hunter, pg 19-20.

[8] Tucker notes that Patrick’s father was a deacon (Confessio 1:4) and that his grandfather a priest (Confessio. 1:5).  However, it is clear from Patrick’s own confession that he was not a believer at this time.  Cahill suggests that, similar to “Christianized” countries today, in the Roman Empire at that time, if you were not Pagan, you were Christian.  How “Christian” Patrick’s family was is an issue still open to historical debate. (Tucker, pg 38-39; Cahill, pg 15-16.)

[9] Tucker, pg 38-40.

[10] Confessio 1:1-11 (de Paor’s translation of Confessio and Epistola follow a model developed by Dr. David Howlett.  Line breaks and chapter/line numbers are from de Paor’s edition as adopted from Howelett (de Paor, pg 216).

[11] Neill writes:  “[Patrick] seemed painfully conscious of his lack of theological competence and fitness for the office of bishop.” (Neill, pg 50).

[12] See I Timothy 1:14-16 for a classic example of this from Paul.

[13] Confessio 1:11

[14] Confessio 10:21-31

[15] Tucker, pg 39

[16] Hunter, pg 19

[17] John 1:14

[18] Tucker, 39

[19] Confessio 16:1-7

[20] ibid 1:11-16

[21] Catholic Encyclopedia, Online Edition

[22] Exodus 2:11-23

[23] Acts 7; Acts 22:19-21

 Confessio 17:15-21

[25] ibid. 18:29-35

[26] ibid. 18:36-50

[27] ibid. 23:116-129

[28] ibid. 28:1

[29] ibid. 10:81. 

[30] Confessio 33:1-8

[31] ibid. 49:173-176

[32] ibid. 37:15-38:2

[33] Neill, pg 50

[34] Hunter, pg 23

[35] de Paor, pg 200

[36] ibid.

[37] Mark 1:17

[38] Luke 19:10

[39] de Paor, pg 199

[40] Hebrews 12:2

[41] de Paor, pg 199

[42] Epistola 10:79-84, 90-93

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