Saint Patrick – Slave, Shepherd, Priest, Apostolic Church Planter, Movement Maker
My family name was most likely originally Curlee or O’Curlee, until changed to Corley many generations back. The Curlee name found its way from western Scotland and Ireland to New Orleans, and other parts of America, in the 1630’s, and then in droves after the potato blights of the 1800’s. From there, I’m guessing, a few caught on with saw mill companies and made it to beautiful Central Louisiana and settled as Corley’s. On my family’s land in Grant Parish, you can actually still make out the rows in the woods from when it was all one big potato farm. Being a “history buff,” this knowledge about my family name planted in me an interest in Saint Patrick. Here’s some interesting info I found out about:
Patrick actually isn’t a Saint, as he was never officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, but he is celebrated with a feast day and widely venerated by the church. Also, he was not Irish, but an Englishman from Roman Britain. Patrick was born in AD 390, to a middle class Christian family. Though his grandfather was a pastor and both parents devoutly religious, Patrick says that “he knew not the true God” as a rebellious teenager. Then at age 16, pirates raided his home town and carried him away to Ireland. He was sold as a slave to an Irish warlord and forced to become a shepherd.
At this point in history, Ireland was radically pagan and extremely violent. The Roman Catholic Church had given up on converting the territories and even discouraged people from traveling there. Maps of the day would label areas such as Ireland with the words “MONSTERS LIVE HERE.” In a lot of ways the people were monsters. They were illiterate, except for the language of war and bloodshed. They had no cities and little organizational infrastructure. There were around 150 clans who were constantly at war with one another. They valued getting drunk, fighting, sexual perversion, and torture. Their enemies were terrified of them because of their obscene ways of fighting. They called their battle formation the warp-spasm. Basically, they painted themselves, got drunk, stripped naked, and rushed screaming at their opponents like they were demon-possessed. Even Roman Soldiers, who had conquered the world and were known for their brutality, were shocked and frightened by the Irish. The Irish religion was paganism and mysticism, led by druids and pagan priestesses who performed human sacrifices, sex rituals, claimed to be able to control the elements, and preyed on the fears of the people.
This is the world that young Patrick found himself in. As a shepherd he endured total isolation in the rain and snow, never having shelter, much food, or descent clothing. It was during this time that Patrick turned to prayer and the God he knew little about. After six years, God spoke to Patrick and told him to escape because a ship was waiting on him. He walked 200 miles without being caught, found a ship and miraculously made it home, just as God told him he would.
Upon returning home Patrick enrolled in seminary and was eventually commissioned as a Priest by the Roman Catholic Church. When he was in his 40’s, God spoke to him again and commanded him to return to Ireland to preach the gospel and plant churches for the pagans that had enslaved him years before. So, Patrick sold all he had and sailed back to Ireland ready to give his life for the sake of the Gospel.
In Ireland, Patrick began using methods completely unique to his time and that would bring much opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Like modern church planters and missionaries, Patrick sought to use his knowledge of the people and Irish culture to gain open doors to communicate the Gospel. He used things such as the three leaf clover to teach doctrine and adopted their styles of music and art in compelling people to put their faith in Jesus Christ. If enough new converts were present in a village he would lead them to build a simple church that did not resemble Roman architecture and then hand over the church to pastors that he had trained so that he could then move on and repeat the process. Patrick allowed the Gospel, not Roman civilization, to change Ireland. Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, says it like this, “Patrick’s gift to the Irish was his Christianity – the first de-Romanized Christianity in human history…a Christianity that completely inculturated itself into the Irish scene.” A Christian, not Roman-Irish, culture formed and as these “transformed warrior children of Patrick’s heart lay down their swords of battle, flung away the knives of sacrifice, and cast aside the chains of slavery, they very much remained Irishmen and Irishwomen.”
In the span of 30 years, Patrick saw between 30 and 40 of the 150 tribal clans become Christian. He trained over 1,000 pastors, planted 700 churches, and God used him to bring the peace of Christ to one of the most violent territories in the world.
What lessons can we learn from Saint Patrick?
1) Our goal for people – In Patrick’s day, winning people to Christ meant winning people to Roman culture. It seems Patrick was content to allow the Gospel to transform Irish culture instead of forcing Roman culture upon them with the Gospel thrown in. As a church we must always remember that our goal is not to make people like us, but through the Gospel, like Christ.
2) Fearless, sacrificial faith – Patrick sold all his possessions and gave his life to people who had once enslaved him and who would think nothing of doing a quick “warp-spasm” on him and take his life. He was wholeheartedly surrendered to the task of seeing the Irish people come to Christ. It was that kind of faith that the Irish needed to see. Cahill says “his refusal to be afraid of them…his steadfast loyalty and supernatural generosity” spoke volumes to the Irish people. Today, our culture needs to see people that are fearlessly and sacrificially committed to Christ in that way. Does that describe your faith? If so, get ready to be used of God to do amazing things.
For further study:
- At www.ccel.org there is a free downloadable copy of Patrick’s book Confessions.
- Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Random House, 1995.
- St. Patrick, One of the Greatest Missionaries Who Ever Lived by Mark Driscoll.