St. Patrick may be one of the best-known saints, but almost all the popular stories we know of him are merely legends, added to his story centuries later. While he didn’t drive out all the snakes from Ireland (there were none to begin with), what we do know of his life is even more fascinating.
The exact dates of his life are uncertain, but Patrick lived sometime during the fifth century. Most of what we know of him comes from two letters he wrote, Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. They happen to be the oldest surviving documents in Ireland.
Unlike Augustine’s Confessions, Patrick wrote this letter as a defense against other Christian leaders who were attacking his work. Within it, we catch glimpses into his incredible story.
patrick the boy
Patrick was born into an upper-class Roman family in Britain. He was a Roman citizen and British, not Irish. His father, an important local magistrate, was also a deacon, and his grandfather, a priest. While Patrick was born into family with a rich Christian heritage, he rejected their faith. As a child of one of the important families, he would have received a basic Latin education.
patrick the slave
Patrick’s family must have lived on the western coast of Britain. We deduce this because at the age of fifteen, Irish pirates came in the dead of night and kidnapped Patrick when the rest of his family was not at home. The pirates took Patrick and any other valuable servants to sell as slaves. Typically, pirates killed the rest of the household servants.
Patrick’s world changed radically overnight. After arriving in Ireland, the pirates sold him to a man whom Patrick served for the next six years. He went from being the son of a respected local leader to a slave in a strange land. His new master gave him the task of shepherding sheep. This lonely, physically demanding work required him to spend nights outside with the flock. During these desperate, dark hours, Patrick turned to the faith of his family. He cried out to God, placing his faith in Christ.
After six years, Patrick had a vision. In the vision, a voice told him his ship was ready. To Patrick, this meant God was allowing him to escape. He traveled two hundred miles before he found a captain who, after much persuasion, agreed to take the fleeing slave onboard his ship. Three days later Patrick set foot in his homeland again and made his way back to his family.
patrick the missionary
After Patrick was kidnapped as a teenager, Patrick’s family almost certainly thought he had died. Imagine their shock to see their son, now in his early twenties, coming through the front gate. But he was not to stay. A few years after returning home, Patrick had another vision. In the vision, a man came to him with many letters and he gave one to him. As Patrick read it he heard a voice call out, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” Patrick awoke, believing God had called him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
Patrick returned in obedience to share the gospel with the people that had enslaved him. In spite of the dangers, he found success, and many people came to faith in Christ because of his obedience to God’s call. Some of the details are unclear, but we know that he baptized scores of people and brought the monastic movement to Ireland.
Jesus’ command to love your enemies became very real to Patrick when God called him to return to those who had enslaved him so he could share the gospel with them.