National Lutheran News

The Real Saint Patrick

Why he matters to Lutherans

Lutherans need to know about the real St. Patrick. We might be surprised at how much we owe to him. And how greatly Patrick and the Celtic Christian movement that followed him continue to challenge us today.

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Forget the hoopla about Patrick’s banishing snakes from Ireland. Disregard tales about leprechauns and shamrocks. The real St. Patrick is far more interesting.

St. Patrick stands out among the “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding not only Irish Catholics but all Western Christians. Patrick indeed must be recognized as a genuine missionary saint whose faithfulness led to the evangelization of our cultural ancestors. In the end, Lutherans – and others of the Protestant tradition – stand along with Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as co-heirs of Patrick and the Celtic church he founded.

Saint Patrick banishing a snake

Here is why.

Patrick was born along the coast of southwestern England about 393 AD. His family quite possibly was Christian, probably descendents of Roman soldiers and merchants who first brought the faith to England. As a teenager he was captured by a raiding party from Ireland and taken there as a slave in 401 AD to tend sheep on the green hills. He escaped some six years later to France. After returning home to England for a time, and after some period of theological training in France, he returned to Ireland about 432. Some say he responded to a vision that called to him, “Come walk among us once again.” He died in 461 – on March 17.

Ireland at the time was a rough-hewed place. It was almost entirely rural, illiterate, and governed by dozens of violently competitive chieftains. Among such Patrick settled. He and his followers soon built monastic centers or abbeys – crude affairs by most standards, no more than huts of brush. From these centers the gospel touched kings and commoners in increasing numbers.

Roots Christian and Celtic

From such humble beginnings the Celtic movement started down the road that was to shape Western history and its subsequent Christianity. Two things stand out about Celtic Christians.

First, the Celtic monks forged a rugged missionary effort that converted our ancestors. Most of Europe was not yet Christian. Calling themselves “peregrine” –“wanderers” for Christ – beginning about 590 AD hundreds of Celtic monks and laity set out to evangelize Scotland, Wales and northern England. Most notable among them were pioneer missionaries Columba and Aidan. During the 600’s and 700’s Celtic missionaries jumped the English channel to northern France, the low countries, and Germany. We hear of such unfamiliar names as Columbanus, Wilfrid (also called Boniface), Willibrod and Gall (he of the famous St Gallen abbey in Switzerland). They often went in groups of twelve, most often planted monasteries as mission outposts into which they settled and from which they taught.

The Celtic tradition was re-united with Roman Christianity after 664 AD in England. Yet the Celtic missionary spirit continued to infuse the early medieval church. There is no direct link between Celtic missionaries and Scandinavia, but there is a strong indirect connection. The north German Christianity that owed so much to Celtic mission in turn became the base for the evangelization of the northland. In 824, in the spirit of St. Patrick but as a Roman bishop, St. Ansgar became first a missionary to Denmark and then to Sweden. His efforts lay dormant for another 170 years until at last the Scandinavian lands became officially Christian to the relief of everyone in Ireland, Britain and Europe who had suffered from earlier onslaughts by the Vikings.

The Celtic monks traveled to strange and savage places others by-passed.

There is a solid missionary lineage, an apostolic connection, between St. Patrick and his followers and all Western Christians, Lutherans not excluded. The line runs from Ireland to Germany to Scandinavia, through the Reformation, and across the Atlantic to us today. It is a long missionary trail. No wonder then that those largely unknown Celtic “wanderers for Christ” have bequeathed to us a blessing that may sustain us today as we seek to travel the road of mission to that ultimate frontier between faith and unbelief:

May the road rise up before you,
May the sun be always in your face.
And the wind be to your back,
And until we meet again,
May the Lord keep you in the palm of his hand.

The second lasting impact Celtic Christians made lay in their scrupulous scholarship. Wherever in Ireland, the British Isles and Europe they settled in their rural abbeys, Celtic monks searched out and copied hundreds of biblical and ancient Latin secular manuscripts, including many preserved by the Islamic universities of Spain and beyond. Eventually, s a result, education, art, and theology once more had an opportunity to flourish and to shape emerging Western culture.

Celtic Christianity spanned the final disintegration of Roman imperial order. Celtic monks lived during the darkest of the early medieval dark ages. The Western lands were plagued by violence, superstition, slavery and human sacrifice. Into this wilderness came the Celtic monks with the gospel of renewal and peace. They crossed geographical frontiers, engaged the forces of darkness in their heartlands, and brought vitality into the Christianity of their day. As we confront our own new dark age, a time when we are losing the memory of our biblical and moral roots, we are challenged by Celtic scholarly discipline, commitment to the Scriptures, and willingness to engage new challenges.

My initial introduction to Patrick and to Celtic missionary Christianity happened nearly fifty years ago through Dr. Andrew Burgess, a professor of Missions at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. My fascination has not ceased – at how the Celtic monks traveled to strange and savage places others by-passed, at how they put down roots in their monastic centers of learning, and how effectively the leaven and light of the gospel of Jesus did its work among the people with whom they came to live.

So move over you wearers of the green. Make room in your parades for Lutherans of all parts whose origins are from the land of sauerkraut and the frozen north. For we share a common ancestor – the real St. Patrick and the Celtic Christian tradition. Let us celebrate together those whose missionary wanderings and whose scholarly efforts have shaped us and continue to challenge us.

James A. Bergquist is the retired President of Trinity Lutheran College in Seattle, a former India missionary, seminary professor and dean, a pastor and home mission director of the ALC and ELCA, and for the past ten years a post-retirement visiting professor at seminaries in Hong Kong and India.