Patrick: The Slave and the Missionary

As a child, it’s fair to say what I knew of classic literature came from “Wishbone” and what I knew of church history came from “Adventures in Odyssey.” Each afternoon after school, I was transfixed during the thirty minute audio theater-style broadcast. I remember the dramatic episodes that introduced me to St. Patrick, the young slave boy whose faithfulness to God would change the face of Ireland. 

Patrick grew up in late 4th century Britain, the son of a wealthy deacon. By his own account, he ignored the religion of his family. When he was about 16 years old, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken back to pagan Ireland as a slave (circa 405). For six years, he was enslaved and worked caring for his master’s herds. Far from home and surrounded by a pagan culture, Patrick clung to the Christian faith he had previously shrugged off. He later attributes this season of his life with his coming to the Lord. Alone in the fields, he spent the majority of his time in prayer. After a dream instructed Patrick to leave and return home, he escaped and fled. A long dangerous journey led him home to the safety of his family. 

Shortly after his return to Britain, Patrick had another dream. I’ll record it in his own words.

“There, in a vision of the night, I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’ And I was stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more, and thus I awoke.”

I can only imagine. Violently captured, stolen from your family, enslaved in a foreign land—your youth lost in slavery. The last place I would want to return would be to the land of my captivity. The last people I would want to be sent to would be my captors. But the pleading call of the Irish in his dream moved Patrick’s heart. There seems to have been no question in his mind of returning, only a question of his own adequacy. He sought religious training, was ordained as a priest, and returned to Ireland as a missionary. 

Instead of bitterness towards the Irish, he expresses deep love. His captivity, he says, was necessary to move his heart to care for them. He says, 

“[God]prepared me so that today I should be what was once far from me, in order that I should have the care of—or rather, I should be concerned for—the salvation of others, when at that time [he was captured as a teen], still, I was only concerned for myself.” 

While there had been other Christian influences in Ireland, these had been largely unsuccessful, which is why Patrick is credited with the conversion of Ireland to Christianity. It was precisely because of his intimate knowledge of the language and culture, which he learned while he was enslaved, that added to his effectiveness. He traveled widely through the country, teaching, baptizing, ordaining priests, and establishing church communities. At first, he targeted the chieftains and leaders, knowing that if they were converted, their clansmen would be more likely to convert as well. As legend has it, one of his first converts was his former master.

“I was not worthy, nor was I such that the Lord should grant his humble servant this, that after hardships and such great trials, after captivity, after many years, he should give me so much favor in these people, a thing which in the time of my youth I neither hoped for nor imagined.”

Patrick would spend the rest of his days ministering to the people of Ireland, and the country would quickly become one of Europe’s Christian centers. He loved the people so dearly, he prayed to never be separated from them. 

“Therefore may it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.”

In all of these endeavors, Patrick’s voice is one of extreme humility and awe that God would choose to use him. 

"I am, then, first of all, countrified, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favors in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure."

This is the man we remember this coming Friday—a humble slave boy who willingly returned to his captors with the message of the Gospel. May we be challenged and encouraged by his dedication to sharing the Gospel with those who are the hardest to reach, to those who have hurt us, to those we “owe” nothing to. May we be reminded through his story that it is precisely in the midst of our darkest days we are prepared for our ministry.