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Irish eyes are smiling around the world on 17 March—the one day in the calendar on which Ireland’s patron saint is remembered with fond affection.

Patrick was born in Britain in 389, apparently to an affluent Christian family. His education was meagre, something about which he was quite self conscious and forever apologising. Tragically, at the age of 16 he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd farmer. Yet, in God’s sovereignty, his conversion to Christ dates from this period. God opened his eyes, he wrote, and ‘showed him his sins.’

After six years in slavery, he escaped, eventually ending up back on mainland Britain. The years that immediately followed his escape are difficult to trace. Most probably, he continued his education in Britain and perhaps even on the continent. Nevertheless, it was during this period that he wrote of a vision he received of the Irish people’s calling him back to their land—but this time with the message of Jesus. By 432 he was back in the Emerald Isle explaining the gospel to the people who had enslaved him.

As Celts, the Irish people had never been part of the Roman Empire. Although they had contacts with Britain, the Irish Celts were culturally, economically, and politically different. As the Roman Empire was declining, it abandoned Britain as too difficult to defend, so the Church filled the vacuum. The spiritual outreach to Ireland was primarily the work of Patrick, the shamrock saint. God used him to transform Ireland from a land saturated with the secretive magic and occultist practices of the Druids to one devoted to Christ and his kingdom.

As an itinerant minister, Patrick understood the evangelistic dynamic of the Christian faith. He discerned that it alone offered what the Druid priests could not—peace to a land troubled by tribal warfare. He, therefore, developed the strategy of winning the tribal leaders of Ireland to Christ. All evidence indicates that many of the local lords and kings became Christians. As they converted, they virtually guaranteed protection for the successful spread of the faith throughout the Irish culture. As a result, the peasants converted too. In fact, some estimates suggest more than 100,000 converts to Christianity as a result of Patrick’s ministry.

The Irish church that Patrick led became a vital missionary sending church. From the strategic island of Iona, Columba (521-597) launched out to convert the Scots and Picts of Scotland and the Angles and Saxons of northern England. With Iona as his base, he spent the last 30 years of his life evangelising the northern British Isles. He became one of the greatest missionaries in church history. But without Patrick, there would have been no Columba, for Patrick led his grandfather to Christ and baptised him. Both the movement that Columba championed and the family from which he came owed their spiritual energy to Patrick.

It was said of Patrick that he ‘lived with the Bible.’ His humble, amiable, and loving personality, together with his tenacity, courage, and devotion to ministry explain his triumph. His passion was for Christ and his work. Because he gave his life to Christ, the Lord used him to transform a very pagan culture, in a time of crucial transition, into a culture identified with the Saviour. His desire to return to the land of his enslavement can only be explained supernaturally. Love for those who enslaved him was the vital centre of his vision for Ireland. Such supernatural love continues to motivate all meaningful ministry 1,500 years later!