In my civilization survey classes at Northern, I have the chance
to talk some of the most important figures of history. One important
figure I don’t talk about, however, is St. Patrick. This is unfortunate
since most of my students (and most Americans) have a rather inaccurate
picture of Patrick, a man who had an enormous impact on Western Civilization.
Most of the time, St. Patrick brings to mind images of parades, of corned beef and cabbage, of leprechauns, and of getting pinched for not wearing green.
None of these things have anything to do with the real St. Patrick.
Those who know about more of the tradition remember the legends of Patrick casting the snakes out of Ireland and using a shamrock to illustrate the trinity. Again, these things have nothing to do with the real Patrick.
The real story is this.
Patrick was born in Britain in the early fifth century. At the age of 16, he was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave. He spent the next six years of his life as a swineherd.
In his early 20’s, he escaped and made his way to back to Britain. But he soon decided to leave behind the easy, comfortable life that could have been his and return to Ireland, this time as a missionary.
He was enormously successful, converting tens of thousands of Irishmen to the gospel, establishing some three hundred churches, and ordaining Irish clergy to serve in these churches. In a single generation, Patrick established among the Irish a strong and vibrant Christianity.
This turned out to be a mighty good thing. The Christianized Roman Empire of the west was about to be destroyed by barbarian invaders. In many of the places where the church had been firmly established (including Patrick’s native Britain), Christianity was all but wiped out.
And now it was the turn of the Irish to send out missionaries, missionaries who successfully converted Angles, Saxons, Normans, Jutes and Franks to Christianity.
A recently published book is titled How the Irish Saved Civilization. The author goes just a bit far in his claims, but he’s pretty close. The Irish did help preserve much of Western Civilization, and they would not have been able to do this had it not been for Patrick.
What was it that made Patrick successful?
The sources that survive show that Patrick was a man who loved prayer, a man who loved the scripture, and a man who loved people. They also show that he didn’t love money. He always refused the gifts that the converted pagans and newly ordained priests offered him.
Further, Patrick refused to compromise with injustice. While other Christian leaders were willing to work hand in glove with cruel barbarian conquerors, Patrick denounced their sellouts.
However, it seems to me that the real key to Patrick’s success is his humility.
Patrick’s “Confession” shows his refusal to take credit for any of the great events of his life. He calls himself “the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick,” and he attributes all of his success to the grace of God.
Patrick could do great things only because he knew he was not great, that he could do nothing by himself. And throughout history, the leaders who have had the greatest lasting positive impact were the most humble, the ones least eager to claim credit for themselves.
And this, I think, is the lesson that America today really needs to learn from St. Patrick. We need to remember that pride is the deadliest of sins, and humility one of the greatest of virtues.
This is probably what we should be really thinking about the most on St. Patrick’s Day.
But I’m going to eat my corned beef and cabbage as well.