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Fr Billy Swan

On 17th March each year, the Church returns to her rich storehouse of inspiration to reflect on the life of a saint whose witness can breathe new life into our missionary efforts today. In the story of St. Patrick of Ireland, we find a Church Father who stands at the beginning of our faith tradition and whose writings are steeped with references to the living Word of God in Scripture. Here, I reflect on four reasons why St. Patrick has much to teach us as we remember him – not in a sentimental or nostalgic way, but to put our finger on the pulse of divine life that beats through his story and to harness the spiritual current that has been carried through generations of Christians and can energize a new generation of evangelizers today.

‘This is who we confess and adore, One God in Trinity of sacred name’

The above is a quote from a creed included in St. Patrick’s Confessio in which he teaches that God is One. Earlier in the same creed, he states that “from him everything else takes its beginning. He is, as we say, the one who keeps hold of all things” (Confessio 4). Patrick proclaimed this teaching into a culture where many gods were worshipped. Although the symbol of the shamrock comes from a time after Patrick, it does express a core truth that Patrick insisted on, namely that God is Trinity—a communion of divine persons in one God. Accepting this truth requires that we turn away from worship of false gods or anything that threatens to take God’s place as our highest good. 

This remains at the heart of the Church’s mission today, namely that all the baptized be like Patrick - prophets of God’s existence and sovereignty as the Creator of all things. For if this fundamental teaching is neglected, modern day golden calves are multiplied and we revert to believing in false gods again. From the time of Moses until today, this has always been the case.

A New Identity and Dignity

Patrick testifies that the birth of faith in the Irish has corresponded to a transformation of their identity. He understood what was happening through his ministry as the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophesy: “Those who were not my people I will call my people and her who was not beloved I will call my beloved. And in the very place where it was said to them: ‘You are not my people’ they will be called sons and daughters of the living God” (Confessio 40; Hosea 2:23). He continues: “Such indeed is the case in Ireland where they never had knowledge of God-and until now they celebrated only idols and unclean things. Yet recently, what a change: they have become a prepared people of the Lord, and they are now called the sons and daughters of God” (Confessio 41).

We become like who we worship. If we turn aside to false gods, we become less than who we are called to be. If we worship the true God, he shares his divinity with us and we change to become beloved sons and daughters in Christ. We are always in danger of forgetting this truth – to lose sight of our high calling and divine identity. As Patrick was a prophet of our true identity and dignity, may the Lord raise up an army of similar prophets today.


Patrick was the first to describe the Irish as one people. Prior to his arrival, such a concept was alien to the native Irish who were divided by the worship of multiple gods and separated in rival kingdoms. He understood his mission as joining the Irish as a nation to the families of nations who would know God’s salvation at the end of time. The acceptance of faith by the Irish led to the rise of communities and monasteries that modelled a new ecclesial and social unity. The Gospel Patrick proclaimed was a power that united people in God and to one another.

St. Patrick continues to be a figure of unity today. His feast is celebrated around the world and here in Ireland, he is celebrated by all Christian denominations. Being British, he is an example of someone whose Christian faith is a bridge to connecting with others in a way that transcends cultural, ethnic and national boundaries and unites people through bonds of respect and fraternity. Here is the spirit of the Gospel that is the antidote to the polarization we see today.

Re-telling the Story

St, Patrick’s Confessio is the story and testimony of his life. He intuits that it will be read and pondered in the future as he prays for us who do so: “I now pray for anyone who believes in, and fears, God who may per-chance come upon this writing which Patrick, the sinner and unlearned one, wrote in Ireland” (Confessio 62). Yet Patrick does not place himself at the center of the story. At the heart of the story he announced to the Irish was the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to redeem the world. At the same time, he found his own place within that story, the great Theo-drama, and bears witness to how that same story has transformed his own life. So successful was he in telling that story that it would transform a whole nation and inspire countless men and women to tell that story across the globe as missionaries.

In a world and culture that is ignoring and forgetting the Christian story, our calling is to retell the greatest story ever told and to help people find their place within that drama in which God has created them to participate. Like St, Patrick, we re-tell that story not as detached bystanders but as witnesses whose lives have been changed by being drawn deeper into the dynamics of the great love story of God and his people. For Patrick, this was evangelization and this was why mission remains so essential.

The witness of St. Patrick of Ireland reminds us of the essentials of this evangelizing enterprise; namely to proclaim God’s oneness and sovereignty, the gift of faith that transforms our identity, our call to unity and evangelization as re-telling the love story about God and his people, helping a modern audience find their place within it.

St. Patrick of Ireland, pray that our efforts to evangelize may be as fruitful as yours!


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