The rule of thumb for Orthodox Christians is that a Latin Christian who lived after the Great Schism of 1054, while they may have lived exemplary lives, are not saints in the full sense of the Church’s understanding. But because he lived from c. 385 to 17 March 460/461 Patrick is considered part of the undivided Church and therefore is an Orthodox saint.
St. Patrick’s Life
The name “Patrick” is derived from the Latin “Patricius” which means “highborn.” He was born in the village of Bannavem Taburniae. Its location is uncertain; some scholars place it on the west coast of England, while others place it in Scotland. His father was Calpurnius, a Roman Decurion (an official responsible for collecting taxes) and a deacon in the church. His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest.
This means that Patrick had a solid Christian upbringing and was well acquainted with the refinements of Roman civilization. But he lived on the edge of civilization at a time when the Roman Empire was under siege by barbarians. When Patrick was sixteen he was kidnapped by pirates, taken to Ireland, and there sold as a slave. He was put to work as a herder of swine on a mountain in County Antrim.
Looking back on his youth, he recounts:
I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. (Confessio §1)
Although Patrick had a Christian upbringing, he took his faith for granted. This complacency would be shaken by the calamity of being taken into exile. For the next six years he spent much of his time in solitude and prayer which would prepare him for life as a monastic. During this time Patrick also learned the local language which would prepare him for his future work as a missionary bishop.
But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number. . . . (Confessio §16)
His escape from slavery resulted from two visions. In the first vision it was revealed that he would return home. The second vision told him his ship was ready. He then walked two hundred miles to the coast, succeeded in boarding a ship, and reunited with his parents.
Sometime later Patrick studied for the priesthood under St. Germanus in Gaul (France).
Eventually, he was consecrated as a bishop and entrusted with the mission to Ireland. Patrick had a dream in which he heard the Irish people begging him to come back to them. There were other missionaries in Ireland but it was St. Patrick who had the greatest success. For this reason, he is known as “The Enlightener of Ireland.”
Evangelizing the Irish people was not an easy task. The Irish populace regarded him with hostility and disdain. He was a foreigner and, worst yet, a former slave. Despite the opposition, Patrick persevered in his missionary calling and baptized many into Christ. This resulted in churches and monasteries all across Ireland.
In his autobiography Patrick described his motivation for doing missionary work:
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: ‘To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth. . . . (Confessio §38)
St. Patrick’s missionary labors would result in a blessing, not just to the Irish, but to humankind as well. How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill tells how Ireland became an isle of saints and scholars, preserving Western civilization while the Continent was being overrun by barbarians.
American culture has been richly blessed by the presence of the Irish. In the US, March 17th has become something close to a national holiday. While in many instances St. Patrick’s day has become more of an excuse for partying, it can also be made into an occasion for renewing our faith in Christ.
Lessons From the Life of St. Patrick
One, Patrick was blessed with being born into a family of committed believers but had drifted away from God. He saw his captivity as punishment for his earlier sins but also as an opportunity to return back to God. Similarly, we need to remember to be vigilant in our spiritual life but also to be mindful that God can use hardships as a means of spiritual growth.
Two, life is often more fragile than we know. Patrick lived on the edge of Roman civilization where life was often far from stable or secure. He was among the thousands who were taken captive by the barbarians. For those of us who feel like the world as we know it is on the verge of collapse, we need to remember God rules over human history even while this sovereignty seems hidden from our eyes.
Patrick lived in a time when the Roman world was under siege by barbarian forces and at a time when a new Christian society was emerging. In 410 Rome was sacked by Alaric and soon after that the western half of the Roman Empire slid into the dark ages. But thanks to Emperor Constantine’s foresight the Roman Empire continued in the New Rome of Constantinople which was founded in 330. Roman civilization would endure another thousand years in the East until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
Three, God worked through the tragedies in Patrick’s life. Patrick’s abduction took him away from his Christian surroundings into an unreached people group. His time as a slave gave him a knowledge of Irish culture and language that would later enable him to preach Christ. The practical skills acquired now can be used for God’s kingdom in the future.
Four, trials and hardship can become a means of spiritual growth. The lonely work as a goatherd prepared Patrick for the monastic life of solitude and prayer. In our life are hidden opportunities for prayer and meditation waiting to be discovered.
Five, the earlier hardships gave Patrick an inner toughness and steadfastness that would enable him to preach Christ in the face of fierce opposition. Rather than complain about our current hardships we can allow them to teach us the inner strength to persevere and prepare us for some future task ordained by God.
Six, Patrick’s life and mission teach us the importance of the Great Commission to Orthodox Christianity. The Christian faith is broad and catholic, it is meant for all peoples, not just for particular ethnic groups.
Finally, I would be remiss not to notice the challenge Saint Patrick presents to our Protestant friends who are so interested in the early church fathers and the lives of the pre-schism saints. This interest is also based on the fact that these saints did not embrace Rome’s later innovations like forbidding priests to marry, Mary’s immaculate conception or her being co-redemptrix for our salvation, papal supremacy over all bishops, and papal infallibility. St. Patrick (385-460/461) lived around the time of other great saints like Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397), Augustine (354-4300, Basil the Great (c. 329-3790, Athanasius (329-373), Jerome (c. 345-c. 419), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 310- c. 386).
Saint Patrick embraced the Orthodoxy of his day, e.g., the Liturgy, the office of the bishop, the first and second Ecumenical Councils, the Nicene Creed without the Filioque, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and monasticism. It is commendable that Protestants are using St. Patrick to rediscover their historic roots, but one should stop to ponder whether it is wise to pick and choose their heroes of the faith. Are they doing it because it is the cool thing to do today or because it is part of Holy Tradition? Wouldn’t it be better to embrace the Holy Tradition taught and proclaimed by St. Patrick? And wouldn’t it be wiser to embrace the entire communion of saints recognized by historic Orthodoxy? Wishing you all a blessed St. Patrick’s Day! Text above excerpted from an article by Robert Arakaki titled “Is Saint Patrick an Orthodox Saint?” www.orthodoxbridge.com
Pasting postings about St. Patrick from the Ortho Thought for the Day blogspot: