A protestant looking into St. Patrick—what’s up with that? I guess I’m curious about Patrick (Latin Patricius; Irish Padraig; c. 380-461 CE) because there is an actual historical figure lurking behind all the legends. Last year we posted on Padraig’s body armor, the famed breastplate prayer attributed to him. This year we turn to his Confessio, sometimes called the Declaration.
Historiography and Hagiography
When it comes to Padraig, we’re conditioned to think of a legendary figure who drove the snakes out of Ireland. This is the St. Patrick of blarney, the one popular with those who guzzle green beer in pubs each year on March 17. Yuck, thank goodness for Guinness.
I’m not interested in the St. Patrick of blarney, though it would be fun to visit that stone some day. I’m interested in the Padraig of history, who actually preached the gospel in Ireland, the one who is said to have used the shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to pagan nature-worshipers. The shamrock business may also be blarney, but at least it’s theological blarney.
Getting into the Confessio
What sort of writing is Padraig’s Confessio? The earliest copy we have dates to the 9th century but its rustic Latin is older, dating to the 4th or 5th centuries. Most scholars think the Confessio goes back to the historical Padraig. It’s hard to classify the Confessio, but I guess we should think of it as a rambling memoir of life and ministry. It repeatedly defends Padraig’s integrity as it tells of a crucified life. It’s a sort of farewell address, like the apostle Paul’s in Acts 20 and 2 Timothy.
The Confessio recounts Padraig’s traumatic kidnapping and enslavement in Ireland, and how God called him to faith and freedom in Britain only to summon him back to Ireland again to preach Christ. It speaks of persecution by both pagan kings and churchmen. It tells of thousands of baptisms and lives dedicated to the service of Christ. It recounts that Padraig, like Moses, always thought of himself as lacking in eloquence.
A google search yields several English translations of the Confessio. I like this one—it’s contemporary and it arranges the text into 62 paragraphs. I encourage you to read the Confessio. You can probably do it in 30 minutes or less, but I’d advise going slower and reflecting on its message.
Getting Something out of the Confessio
Padraig’s Confessio is both cautionary and encouraging. Here are a few of its features that stuck with me:
- Knowing the Bible is vital for ministry. Padraig constantly recalls Scriptures as he writes, especially the prophets, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters. He affirms the Trinity early on in the Confessio and speaks clearly of the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in his life.
- Being raised in the church doesn’t make you a Christian. Padraig’s father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest, but he didn’t come to faith until he was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland. Those near the means of grace don’t always experience the end of grace.
- Experiencing disaster doesn’t make you a failure. Padraig’s 6-year enslavement brought him to repentance and faith. His weaknesses and opponents kept him near the cross and focused his mind on the power of Jesus’ resurrection..
- Having success in life and ministry shouldn’t make you proud. Padraig’s humility is clear throughout the Confessio, literally from the first sentence to the last.
- Looking back over a lifetime of ministry isn’t prideful. Like the apostle Paul, as he neared the end of his earthly life Padraig could reflect on good times and bad in a wholesome way that gave God all the glory.
- Learning about exemplary Christians and following their example is healthy. We need to see how the gospel message is embodied in the lives of faithful followers of Jesus. We can do this wisely without becoming hero-worshipers like the Corinthians (1 Cor 3-4).
So Why Bother with Padraig?
Larry Norman once asked “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Whether we agree with Larry about the use of rock music to praise God or not, we can ask a similar question about Padraig: Why should we let the world pretend that remembering St. Patrick is about getting drunk on March 17 every year?
Today more than ever we need positive role models like the humble, plain-spoken Padraig, whom God used to bring thousands of Irish people to Christ (Phil 2:25-30). Let’s get to know the real Padraig through his Confessio, and let’s get the word out about the man who wrote “So I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation. I can today with confidence offer my soul to Christ my Lord as a living victim” (Rom 12:1).
Padraig concluded his Confessio with these words:
I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done in ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.
• • • • • • •
Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith. (Hebrews 13:7 NLT)
• • • • • • •
Almighty and everlasting God, you called your servant Patrick to preach the Gospel to the Irish people: Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
For Further Thought:
Here is a site dedicated to the Confessio with many helpful resources about Padraig.
From the Díseart Centre of Irish Spirituality and Culture in Dingle comes this helpful overview that distinguishes between the mythical St. Patrick and the historical Padraig.
Christopher Laws writes here about Padraig’s context, focusing on the Confessio and providing resources for further reading.