Who Was "St Patrick"?

Patrick was born in the Fourth/Fifth Century in the village of Bannavem Taburniae, probably somewhere in Western Wales or England. His father was Calpornius, a deacon; and his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest or presbyter. Although raised in a Christian home, Patrick, by his own admission “did not know the true God,” when, at the age of sixteen, pirates abducted him and sold him into slavery. Patrick attributes this calamity to the chastisement of God: “deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep his commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation.” Patrick’s captors brought him to Ireland, where he became a shepherd on the lonely Irish hills. In God’s providence and grace, however, Ireland became the place of Patrick’s new birth: “And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God.” The young convert praises God’s “mercy on [his] youth and ignorance,” as well as God’s fatherly care of him: “[He] guarded me and comforted me as would a father his son.” He escaped from Ireland, but later returned to be a missionary to the Irish.

Although claimed by the Roman church as an emissary of the pope, Patrick and the British church were not under the papal yoke, nor would the Irish church be under papal authority until many centuries after Patrick, when in 1155 pope Adrian IV, the only English pope, granted Ireland to King Henry II of England. Typical Roman doctrines such as purgatory and Mariolatry are absent from Patrick’s writings, although there are some areas, such as his citations from the Apocrypha and reliance on dreams as divine guidance, where we would disagree with him theologically. Significantly, Patrick was neither an Arian (a denier of the Trinity) nor a Pelagian (a denier of the efficacy of God’s grace and a proponent of freewill theology) and he quotes repeatedly from the Scriptures, establishing them, and not the Church or the pope, as his authority in doctrine and life.

Patrick’s Trinitarianism is solid, although the legend that has him explaining the Trinity to the pagans of Ireland with the bad analogy of the shamrock is almost certainly spurious, being first mentioned more than one thousand years after Patrick. Patrick writes about Christ, “We declare [him] to have always been with the Father, spiritually and ineffably begotten by the Father before the beginning of the world, before all beginning.” Later, Patrick writes, “Christ abideth forever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and the Holy Spirit before time, and now, and in all eternity.”

Patrick’s doctrine of salvation is a powerful confession that God alone is the Saviour through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit by grace alone. The missionary to Ireland never attributes salvation in any part to his good works. Indeed, Patrick begins his confession in these words: “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful.” He attributes his deliverance from unbelief not to the power of his freewill, but to God: “the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief.” In a beautiful, homely way, he describes his conversion: “before I was humiliated I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and he that is mighty came and in his mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft, and placed me on the top of the wall.”

Having committed his soul to Christ the Saviour, Patrick had personal assurance of eternal life: “On that day without doubt we shall rise in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God and joint heirs with Christ, to be made conformable to his image, for of him, and by him, and in him we shall reign.”

[All citations are from “St. Patrick’s Confession, one of only two of his extant writings].