Who Was the Real Saint Patrick?

On a Life of Missional Outreach


By Evelyn Reams  |  March 15, 2021  |  Return to Blog   


Myth or Fact? 

“I cannot be silent, nor would it be good to do so about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.” Confessio, part 3 

On Saint Patrick’s Day, some celebrate together, some make recipes or crafts, and others simply wear green. But most never consider the real person behind the holiday. As a captive, refugee, and later missionary to Ireland, St. Patrick kept the Gospel at the forefront of his cross cultural outreach. 

As with many historical figures, the lore surrounding Patrick has come to eclipse the facts known about him. Although well-known by the title of Saint, Patrick was never canonized as a saint by the church. There is a solid lack of evidence for almost all of the myths surrounding his life, including those about shamrocks, snakes, and duels with druids. We can look to his own writings and historical accounts for a better idea of his true motivations. Patrick’s Confessio, with excerpts included throughout, illuminates the life of a champion of the Gospel in a hostile culture. 

Lessons From The Field

“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. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest.” Confessio, part 1 

Patrick was not born Irish. He grew up in what is now the southern United Kingdom to wealthy parents. Raised in the church, he learned about prayer and salvation, but Patrick had never embraced belief for himself. At sixteen, he was kidnapped and taken as a slave to Ireland. It was perhaps his time of servitude that best prepared him to minister. He was forced to herd sheep in sun, rain, and freezing conditions for six years. His faith when he arrived in Ireland was not strong, but “It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith.” He prayed every morning as he cared for the sheep, and in this way began to make the Christian faith he was taught his own. Upon returning years later, he would be entrusted with a flock of new believers and weather adversity, this time from those in power.

Adapting Cultural Expectations

“I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.” Confessio, part 12

Eventually, he escaped aboard a pagan-run ship. Although he refused to follow their rituals, they allowed him safe passage. After reuniting with his parents, Patrick was called to go back to Ireland: this time to share the Gospel with a country steeped in pagan beliefs. In his youth, he admitted to committing an unnamed sin, which caused church leaders to refuse to him the position of bishop. They sent an alternate minister. But after less than a year, the other bishop resigned due to the difficulties he encountered, and Patrick was given the position anyway. 

“You know yourselves how much I expended on those who were the judges in those regions which I most frequently visited...I still spend, and will spend more. The Lord is powerful, and he can grant me still to spend my very self for the sake of your souls” Confessio, part 53

Not much is known about the specific strategies Patrick used to relate to the Irish people. Using a shamrock to explain the trinity, a common legend, is not mentioned anywhere in his work. Ireland was a wild land ruled by many tribal chieftain-kings. Druid leaders engaged in many dark practices including human sacrifices to their gods. Patrick treated the tribal kings with tact and respect in order to continue his work. It is recorded that he paid the kings a monetary tribute and in return they allowed him to spread the gospel in their lands. Even so, some of the kings and druid leaders turned to attempt assassination.

The Heart of Outreach

“They even told stories among themselves behind my back, and they said: “Why does he put himself in danger among hostile people who do not know God?” It was not that they were malicious–they just did not understand, as I myself can testify, since I was just an unlearned country person.” Confessio, part 46

The Gospel is the pervasive message throughout Patrick’s Confessio as he describes discipling new believers. Among his flock were many women and slaves, who were often looked down on and taken advantage of. He faithfully served for many years and decided to stay in Ireland throughout his life, though he struggled with homesickness and a desire to travel to Western Europe. 

“Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God” Confessio, part 4

In the end, although looking into his life seems to uncover more unknowns than certainties, his words show a commitment to presenting an unwavering picture of Christ’s resurrection and salvation for the world. The Gospel was at the center of Patrick’s ministry. In the same way, finding timely ways to bring the timeless truth of God’s Word to others should be the heart of cross-cultural outreach today.


Further Reading

Biographical information from:

Freeman, Philip. St. Patrick of Ireland: a Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print. Available for purchase: https://philipfreemanbooks.com/st-patrick-of-ireland/

Quotes from Patrick’s Confessio from:

McCarthy Pa?draig. It Was a Gift of God!: the Confession of St. Patrick and His Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Pa?draig McCarthy, 2003, St Patrick's Confessio. Available online: www.confessio.ie/etexts/confessio_english#.

“You are encouraged to copy this freely, as long as you include the copyright notice as on the front. Please look only to cover the costs you incur.”- P. McCarthy, C 2003