Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/16 2018

How to Remember the Real St. Patrick

saint patrick, missional saint, social justice saintYes, my family is having friends over this March 17, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. And, yes, there will be a mandatory Danny Boy sing-along. And, yes, my son’s cupcakes will have green icing and shamrocks. And, yes, we will write Celtic blessings and bless one another. And, yes, I will offer in my best Irish tenor (even though I’m not Irish; Owens is Welsh) renditions of Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder and The Night Paddy Murphy Died, to the delight, no doubt, of all but my children.

Here’s what we won’t do: sentimentalize the memory of St. Patrick himself. We won’t tell the kids how he used shamrocks to teach about the Trinity or regale our guests with the tail of his driving snakes from Ireland. And not because these stories don’t help us understand the meaning of Patrick.

We won’t do these things because what we know about the real Patrick, from his own writings, is more compelling, and more necessary, for the church today than any legends about him.


The real Patrick, from his own writings, is more compelling, and more necessary, for the church today than any legends about him.


A Missional Saint

At 16, Patrick was abducted from the coast of Britain and forced into slavery in Ireland. Several years later he escaped and found his way home. But in dreams and visions God called him back to carry the Gospel to the very people who had enslaved him.

Patrick tells this story in his confessions. He also tells us how he loved the people of Ireland. He lived among them the rest of his life, as he believed Christ commanded him to do. He walked the island, conversing with the people and challenging pagan practices, all the while showing them the love of Christ.

He found himself caught up in the great mission of God to bring healing and hope to the nations.

The church today can learn from Patrick. Rather than staying hunkered down in the safety of the familiar, as Patrick might have done when he returned to Britain, the church is called to be a peripatetic church, as Patrick was peripatetic bishop—a saint on foot. He walked and lived and risked his life among the people of Ireland. He was a missional bishop, the perfect saint for a would-be missional church.

As Christ was the incarnation of God’s mission to restore a broken world, Patrick shows us a picture of what it means for the church to be the ongoing incarnation of that same mission.


A Social Justice Saint

A letter Patrick wrote shows a different side of his character: his opposition to one of the worst social injustices of his day, human trafficking. Some Christians, newly baptized by Patrick, had been captured and forced into slavery. As a former slave himself, Patrick knew the horror of this practice. Patrick says those who “committed these evil deeds are servants of the demons.”

One can imagine Patrick being equally horrified today as human trafficking continues. I believe he would also decry all sorts of injustices that cause the displacement of people. He would advocate for refugees seeking asylum, for the return of displaced people to their homelands, for the hospitable treatment of immigrants. For, as he says in his letter, “I live as an alien and a wanderer.” He knows what it’s like to live in a land not his own.

Imagine if the church today would learn these lessons from Patrick, if we would let these two commitments shape our lives: an intentional, missional orientation, a participation in the mission of God that gets us among the people of our communities, living, listening, loving, and speaking; and a cleared-eyed commitment to justice for people wandering, for whatever reason, from their homes—people suffering trauma, needing a new start, longing for hope.

Patrick’s witness—the real Patrick’s—might be the key for a renewal of the church in service to God’s world 1,600 years after Patrick lived.


Honoring Patrick

So maybe at our party this Saturday we should write blessings, not just to bless each other, but to bless our community. Maybe we should walk the neighborhood offering the blessings of God to people we meet, listening to their stories, learning to be with them.

And maybe we should write letters, letters to our representatives and letters to the editor, lifting our voices as Patrick did against the social injustices of our day.

Maybe this would be a better way to honor Patrick.

But we’re still singing Danny Boy.


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.


3/17 2015

Five Things St. Patrick Can Teach Church Planters

st-patrickOn March 17, Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Cities like Pittsburgh celebrate with parades. Revelers will indulge in Irish-themed food and drinks, even beer that’s been artificially dyed green. Amusing and entertaining as these festivities may be, they reveal little to us of the glorious ways God moved through humble Patrick’s life and ministry.

Like St. Nicholas – the fourth-century bishop who rescued impoverished girls from prostitution, but whom the world has transformed into Santa Claus – St. Patrick was a saint whose original story of holiness we need to hear afresh today. The real St. Patrick was a man of prayer and discipline as well as an evangelist who baptized – by his own account – “many thousands of people.”[1] And that means that St. Patrick sets a valuable example for those of us who seek to start and lead new churches today.

Based upon St. Patrick’s autobiography, his Confession, here are five lessons which Patrick can teach us:

  1. Patrick was humble. He begins his Confession with the words, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”  Patrick confesses that he’s uneducated and a poor writer. He talks about his failures more than his successes, sharing how his trials were used by God to sanctify him: “. . . thus I was purged by the Lord and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me – that I should care and labor for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself.”[2] When he does mention his successes, he’s quick to attribute them to God’s power working through him, never his own strength.
  2. Patrick knew Scripture inside and out. The edition of the Confession which I’m citing here italicizes every allusion to the Bible. The effect is startling: Patrick couldn’t go more than a few sentences without quoting Scripture. He interpreted every major event of his life in terms of Scripture. His knowledge of Scripture went beyond academic knowledge to form and shape every aspect of his life.
  3. Patrick was a man of prayer. Patrick recounts that as a teenage shepherd, long before his public ministry, he prayed hundreds of prayers each day. Fasting and nighttime prayer vigils were regular parts of Patrick’s life. This life of prayer both prepared Patrick for the powerful ministry which God performed through him and enabled Patrick to discern God’s call upon his life. In a scene reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man in Acts 16:9-10, Patrick had a vision in which a man from Ireland begged him to come back and minister there. Prayer determined Patrick’s participation in God’s mission.
  4. Patrick loved his flock. Patrick was originally from Britain, and first went to Ireland as a captive slave. He eventually escaped and returned in freedom to Britain, but God called him to return to the people who had once enslaved him. Despite longings to go home to Britain or to visit Gaul, Patrick resolved not to abandon his call to stay in Ireland because he loved the people entrusted to his care. In his own words, “as regards the heathen among whom I live, I have been faithful to them, and so shall I be.” [3]
  5. Patrick did not seek his own gain. Near the end of the Confession, Patrick insists that he never charged fees for the ministry he performed. He writes, “I know perfectly well, though not by my own judgment, that poverty and misfortune becomes me better than riches and pleasures. For Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes; and I, unhappy wretch that I am, have no wealth even if I wished for it.” Patrick knew that he was not called to profit from the gospel, but to give his life freely in service of One who had given him new life.

In light of these aspects of Patrick’s life, leaders of church plants and new worshiping communities today would do well to ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. Do we acknowledge our failures and embrace our hardships, letting God use them to grow compassion and humility within us?
  2. How deeply has Scripture shaped the pattern of our lives? Do our visions for ministry come from God through prayer, or from our own ambitions and egos?
  3. Do we love the people to whom God has sent us so deeply that we would stay with them no matter the cost?

Patrick’s world was not that different from our own, and Patrick’s ministry was fruitful not because he became like the world around him, but because he pursued God with zeal and unflinching devotion. May God give us the humility, prayerfulness, and faithfulness of the real St. Patrick.

[1] St. Patrick’s Confession, as printed in Readings in World Christian History: Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, eds. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 2004) p. 223

[2] Confession p. 225

[3] Confession  p. 227

The Rev. Christopher Brown moved to Pittsburgh from Colorado to pursue a master of divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He currently serves as the coordinator of the Church Planting initiative at the Seminary along with pursuing his master’s in theology. Chris is the organizing co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church, a church plant of the PC (U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He regularly blogs at https://christopherbrown.wordpress.com and tweets at @brwnchrstpher.