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Dana L. Robert

The Patrick Paradox

Christian mission, along with the Christian faith, has often advanced on the strength of its rediscoveries—retrieving neglected stories and insights from the past and putting them to fresh use. In 2007 we are asking one big question: What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world? For any endeavor of learning and unlearning, historians are indispensable allies. Dana L. Robert, co-director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology, is an especially keen observer of the history of mission, and here she recalls a saint whose mission is annually celebrated and perennially relevant.

On March 17, people of Irish descent around the world celebrate "St. Patrick's Day." Nearly a million people stream into Dublin, Ireland, to enjoy the fireworks, concerts, parades, and street theater. St. Patrick's Day parades began in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the colonial British Army marched through the streets of New York City accompanied by Irish music. By the early 20th century, St. Patrick's Day parades in major American cities had become triumphant celebrations of Irish "arrival" in the hallowed halls of city government—victors over the old guard Protestant Yankees. The importance of St. Patrick to growing Irish self-confidence was expressed in 1921 by Seumas MacManus, author of the sentimental favorite Story of the Irish Race: "What Confucius was to the Oriental, Moses to the Israelite, Mohammed to the Arab, Patrick was to the Gaelic race. And the name and power of those other great ones will not outlive the name and the power of our Apostle."1

The irony of MacManus' paean to Patrick as the emblematic Irish religio-political race warrior is that Patrick himself was a "Brit," born into a Christian family in the Roman colony of Britannia. Even though the Britons and the Irish shared a Celtic cultural heritage, they were historical enemies who raided each other's territories and enslaved the vanquished. Young Patrick was such a slave. He escaped from an Irish master after six years of harsh servitude. Later in life, as a Christian priest, he returned to Ireland to share his faith as a missionary.

Why did a former slave risk his life to teach his captors what he believed about God? How did he become the beloved St. Patrick, the "Apostle of Ireland"? Why would the Irish—or any other group of people, for that matter—accept a former slave in their midst and then be willing to be transformed by his message? These questions uncover an essential, and paradoxical, lesson about the practice of Christian mission. The more deeply Patrick engaged the particularities of Irish culture and identified himself as Irish, the more authentic and believable was his expression of the ideals of a universal community in which there is no longer "Jew or Greek," "slave or free," "male and female" (Gal 3:28). This creative tension between cultural identification and universal ideals has made Christianity the largest religion in the world today. As the ideas, beliefs, and traditions of Christianity spread from one people to another, they are shaped—and reshaped—by the culture of each new group. So the paradox of St. Patrick's Day is that in celebrating the creation of Irish identity, it also commemorates the incorporation of a particular people into a vision of universal and multi-cultural community.

The life of the 5th-century saint is shrouded in tradition and myth, as appropriate to a heroic figure in Irish epic poetry, whose stories were passed down through the generations. According to legend, St. Patrick was a miracle worker and healer who drove the snakes from Ireland. He explained the Christian Trinity by pointing to the leaves of a shamrock—three "persons" and yet united into one. Patrick is also credited with ordering the written preservation of oral Irish lore. But direct historical evidence about Patrick is slim.2

What is known with certainty is that a Christian bishop named Patrick left two documents—his Confession and Letter to Coroticus—written in the clumsy Latin of someone whose formal schooling was limited. They are the first known documents written in Ireland, and the only known "contemporary narrative of the conversion of Ireland to Christianity."3 Although they are difficult to decipher in places, they also bear consideration as the first surviving substantial Latin texts from "outside the frontiers of the Roman world."4

The better known of the two, Patrick's Confession, narrates how he was seized from his father's land by Irish invaders. Roman troops had withdrawn from Britannia in 410, leaving their northernmost province vulnerable to slave-raiding by the seaborne Picts and Irish. The 16-year-old was taken by boat to Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd and suffered nakedness and hunger. Although he had paid little attention to religious matters before he was captured, he began praying many times a day:

And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me—as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.5

On the strength of a dream, he escaped from slavery, eventually managing to cross the sea and return home.

Many years later, after Patrick had become a priest, he dreamed of a man bringing him letters from Ireland, one of which began, "The voice of the Irish." Patrick dreamed of voices crying, "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more."6 Following his vision of Irish voices, Patrick had another experience of mystical union with God, in which he felt God praying within his body, and also beside and above him. At the end of the prayer, the mysterious force revealed himself as the Holy Spirit, and Patrick awakened. Through such mystical experiences, dreams and visions, Patrick knew that God was calling him to return to Ireland as his "ambassador."7

Patrick's self-understanding as a wanderer under God's protection, operating on the margins of society, was essential to his calling as a missionary. He stated repeatedly in his Confession that he was "rustic, exiled, unlearned," and "the outcast of this world." He was a "stranger and sojourner,"8 "a stranger and exile for the love of God."9 Not only were Christians followers of one who had a wandering ministry on earth and "nowhere to lay his head," but God's spiritual kingdom was universal and not confined to a particular location on earth. Followers of Christ were "in the world but not of it" because their community transcended time and space, and crossed all human boundaries.

Patrick's calling was strongly motivated by his belief in the nearness of a day of judgment. Just as the sack of Rome in 410 caused St. Augustine to recognize that it was a theological mistake to conflate earthly empire with God's heavenly city, so did the collapse of Roman Britannia help Patrick to sever God's call from his own homeland. As have many missionaries down through history, he believed he was chosen to be God's ambassador not because he was educated or sophisticated, but because Jesus had prophesied that the gospel would be preached throughout the world before it ended. Citing passages from the Bible (Isaiah) that referred to what would happen in the end times, Patrick noted that "To Thee [God] the gentiles shall come from the ends of the earth"; and "I have set Thee as a light among the gentiles, that Thou mayest be for salvation unto the utmost part of the earth."10

The theology of mission that Patrick cited as a rationale for his own calling is known today as the "Great Commission." Jesus' final words to his disciples after his resurrection have been one of the major scriptural justifications for cross-cultural mission since the times of Patrick. As the world of Roman Britain crumbled around him, he felt himself burdened with Jesus' final command to go into "all the world," in anticipation of the end of time as he knew it. To Patrick, Ireland represented the "ends of the earth" beyond the boundaries of the known Romanized Christian world—and therefore the object of his own obedience.

According to Patrick's Confession, many Irish were "reborn" through his mission work. But it is the lesser-known Letter to Coroticus that contains vital hints as to why the Irish may have embraced Patrick as their own. The Letter reveals his profound solidarity with the Irish, in an attitude that missiologists today call "missionary identification" or an "incarnational" approach.

It seems that a British chieftain named Coroticus had attacked new Irish Christians, fresh from their baptisms by Patrick. Many were slain in their baptismal robes, and others captured as slaves. In Celtic fury, Patrick cursed Coroticus and his men, calling them not Britons, but wicked "fellow citizens of the demons." With all the power of his office, Patrick rendered divine judgment on Christians who murdered the innocent and enslaved their brothers and sisters in Christ:

Wherefore let every God-fearing man know that they are enemies of me and of Christ my God, for whom I am an ambassador. Parricide! fratricide! Ravening wolves that "eat the people of the Lord as they eat bread"! As is said, "the wicked, O Lord, have destroyed thy law," which but recently He had excellently and kindly planted in Ireland, and which had established itself by the grace of God.11

To be a Christian meant following the laws of Christ. It meant giving up the violence of murder, and of enslaving one's brothers and sisters in the Lord. Coroticus had even sold them as slaves to the non-Christian Scots and Picts! For these violations of Christian law, Coroticus would suffer the penalty according to the Scriptures: " 'The riches, it is written, which he has gathered unjustly, shall be vomited up from his belly; the angel of death drags him away, by the fury of dragons he shall be tormented, the viper's tongue shall kill him, unquenchable fire devours him.'"12

In contrast to the actions of Coroticus, said Patrick, the Christians of Gaul send men with money to ransom Christian slaves from the Franks and other heathen tribes. But Coroticus had taken new Christians, including women who had taken vows of chastity, and betrayed "the members of Christ as it were into a brothel. What hope have you in God, or anyone who thinks as you do, or converses with you in words of flattery? God will judge … . Hence the church mourns and laments her sons and daughters whom the sword has not yet slain, but who were removed and carried off to faraway lands, where sin abounds openly, grossly, impudently."13 As Patrick cried out in "sadness and grief" for the killed and stolen Irish Christians, he showed he considered them as members of his own family of believers: "The wickedness of the wicked hath prevailed over us … Perhaps they do not believe that we have received one and the same baptism, or have one and the same God as Father. For them it is a disgrace that we are Irish. Have ye not, as is written, one God?"14 After predicting that the slain Christians would "reign with the apostles, and prophets, and martyrs" in the "kingdom of heaven," Patrick concluded the letter by asking that it be read aloud "before all the people" and to Coroticus himself.

In this powerful letter, Patrick showed his identification with the Irish in his phrase "we are Irish." As the bishop of the Irish Christians, he defended them with every ounce of his spiritual power, even if it meant defying a powerful military leader of his own ethnic background. To be a Christian was to identify with a new "reference group"—the Christian family. Fellow baptized believers from whatever tribe or nation became one's new family and should be treated as such. Racial and ethnic differences melted away in light of the common relationship in Christ.

Patrick's Letter to Coroticus demonstrated that the Christian ideals of brotherly love and identification in Christ could overcome tribalism. Not only did the missionary Patrick become Irish in solidarity with their suffering, but he was brother to all baptized Christians. The demands of Christian mission included denouncing sin and injustice at grave risk to himself. In its ideal form, incorporation into the "body of Christ" meant choosing a way of peace and reconciliation that overcame ethnic boundaries, and renouncing the killing, violence, and slavery of a warrior culture.

The response of Coroticus and his men to Patrick's countercultural vision was to laugh uproariously and to reject the letter out of hand. In their tribal understanding, there could be no brotherhood with those who stood outside one's own ethnic group. Patrick was caught in a classic missionary dilemma. To the Irish he may have represented Romano-British imperial culture. After all, he was coming from the direction of the old "empire," even if as an ascetic he had personally renounced the trappings of power and prosperity. Yet when he took a prophetic stand for justice on behalf of his converts, his own countrymen accused him of materially profiting from his mission work among the Irish. No doubt conservative authorities thought him a nonconformist troublemaker. This scenario has frequently characterized the self-imposed marginality of missionaries—caught between cultures, and subject to abuse and misunderstandings from both sides. Could opposition from fellow clerics explain why the rustic Patrick was forced to struggle so hard in bad Latin to justify his ministry?

In the 21st century, Christianity increasingly resides beyond the protection of empires, in a globalized context abounding with the movement of peoples—both willingly and unwillingly—across cultural and political borders. As in Patrick's day, those who choose to go "to the ends of the earth" for the sake of the gospel do so in contexts of war, poverty, violence, disease, and even modern-day slavery. Patrick's calling as "stranger and sojourner," as "ambassador" for God, has striking relevance for mission practice in the 21st century. The paradox of Patrick is that to demonstrate the universal ethic of a loving God who transcends human divisions of tribe and race, Patrick took on the particularity of Irish identity. His defiant cry "we are Irish" was proclaimed in solidarity with those who, having enslaved him in the past, were now being killed and abused by his own countrymen. Because Patrick risked becoming Irish, the Irish became Christians.

Those who seek to witness to God's mission in our time must also cast aside their own ethnic prejudices, cultural particularities, political loyalties, and memories of past injustices, in radical identification with the "other." On St. Patrick's Day, it is common to be asked if one is Irish. Perhaps next year, when asked that question, those who know that radical inculturation is essential for Christian witness might recall a certain British missionary, and say "yes."

Dana L. Robert is Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at Boston University School of Theology.

1. Seumas MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race, rev. ed. (Devin-Adair, 1921), pp. 124-125. Part of this article is adapted from the forthcoming volume, Dana L. Robert, A Brief History of Christian Mission (Blackwell, 2008). See also Dana L. Robert, "St. Patrick and Bernard Mizeki: Missionary Saints and the Creation of Christian Communities," Yale Divinity School Library Occasional Publication No. 19 (Yale Divinity School, 2005).

2. Some scholars believe that communal memories of him were an amalgamation of two different missionaries.

3. Tomas Cardinal O Fiaich, "The Beginnings of Christianity," in T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, eds., The Course of Irish History, rev ed (Cork: Mercier Press, 1994), p. 61.

4. Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, 200-1000 A.D. (Blackwell, 1996), p. 83.

5. The Confession of St. Patrick, translated from Latin by Ludwig Bieler, p. 3.

6. Ibid., p. 4.

7. Ibid., p. 11.

8. Ibid., pp. 2, 4.

9.  Patrick, Letter to Coroticus, translated from Latin by Ludwig Bieler, par. 1. http://www.irishchristian.com/stpatrick/CoroticusFrame.htm

10. Confession, p. 6.

11. Letter to Coroticus, par. 5.

12. Ibid., par. 8.

13. Ibid., par. 15, 16.

14. Ibid., par. 17.

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