Patrick (his Latin name was Patricius) was at least a third generation Christian, the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest. He was born in southwest Britain, likely in the 380s AD. Early in his life, however, he did not follow his parent's example. But when he was 16 years old, God found a wat to get his attention.
Fierce Irish raiders broke through the now weak defenses of the Romans, and attacked Patrick's town. He was carried away as a slave, sold to a warrior chief, and was sent to work in Ireland caring for livestock. Suffering from constant hunger, cold and loneliness, he turned to God for strength, and from then on became a man of prayer.
When Patrick was about 22, he heard a voice saying, "You do well to fast. Soon you will return to your homeland." Soon the voice spoke again, "Come and see, your ship is waiting for you."
Taking this as his instruction to escape, he fled 200 miles to a southeastern harbor, where he boarded a trade ship, and eventually made it back to Britain. At home, Patrick had a dream of Irish people calling to him - "Please, holy youth, come and walk with us again." Patrick's heart was moved for his former captors, and he decided to go.
He went to France to study and in time was ordained as a deacon. The church leaders were apparently not confident in Patrick's ability as a missionary, and at first sent another man. But after only a year the first worker passed away, and Patrick, now past 40, was at last allowed to go to Ireland.
When Patrick arrived, aside from a few small churches, most of the Irish were pagans, worshiping everything from planets to plants. Magic and even human sacrifice was practised by the druids and priests. Patrick's strategy was not to take away people's beliefs in spirits, but to expose them as demons and show that God's power was greater.
Of course, he met with stiff opposition, and was constantly in danger of being murdered by the druids. Patrick, however, convinced a local king to tolerate Christianity, and when the king's brother was converted, Patrick was granted land on which to build a church.
Soon he moved on to other unreached areas. When there was a group of new Christians, he would build a guest house and a church, and, if he had the support of a wealthy landowner, he would also build a monastery, as a center of learning and missionary training. The process was highly participative: new converts were enlisted in ministry as fast as possible. In only fifteen years' time he had evangelized across Ireland, and was now well known as a man of God. He planted some hundred churches and baptized perhaps a hundred thousand believers.
The Celtic churches and Celtic missionary movement was largely a part of Patrick's ministry. Women played a large role in the ministry, although Patrick himself was careful not to even accept gifts from women, to avoid any mark on his reputation. Patrick continued in ministry for 30 years, and it's said that Ireland became literate for the first time in his generation. He died in the 460s, in his 70s. By then, Ireland has become roughly 80% Christian.
The learning and Christian heritage that Patrick left is still with us today, even in the area of law. Patrick was instrumental in laying the foundations of law in Ireland based on the ten commandments. Patrick was also among the first to speak out against slavery, with a passion that only a former slave could have had.
After Patrick's death, while chaos was sweeping across a fallen Roman Empire and the illiteracy was becoming the norm, the now literate Irish saved many of the classics of religious and secular literature that would have been lost. Irish clery were called upon to staff churches as far away as Austria! One missionary, in the power of God, made a remarkable difference in the course of history.
In the later years of his ministry, rumours about his past and suspicion about his methods were rumbling around in his homeland of Britain. The Roman church eventually rejected most of the Celtic church's wise missionary strategy in terms of seeking indiginous forms of expression of the gospel.
So may you have a grand St. Patrick's Day. And may it be a day to remember and to follow the example of one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the church: Patricius the Apostle to Ireland.