This week many will celebrate the life of Saint Patrick of Ireland with green shamrocks, green clothing, green beer, and even green rivers. The day has become a time to celebrate the mythos of Eire, the Emerald Isle, and to party, but we can also take advantage of the day to take a second look at Patrick the churchman and his legacy.
As one might expect, much of the story of Patrick is shrouded in myth. The accepted story is that he was kidnapped from Britain by Irish raiders when he was 16 and taken to Ireland where he was a slave for six years. He eventually escaped and returned to his family, but he took vows with the Church and returned to his place of enslavement as a missionary. He is credited with converting the island to the Christian faith. By the seventh century, he had come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.
The genius of Patrick seems to have been his ability to contextualize the faith in order to win converts. He took advantage of the well-developed stories, customs, and institutions of Ireland to present the Gospel in a powerful way. So significant was this approach that it gave birth to what we call Celtic Christianity, a movement that differentiated itself from the Roman form of the faith for centuries.
In his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter identifies several aspects of this approach:
· A team strategy. The followers of Patrick usually worked in cohorts for mutual support and encouragement.
· Spiritual empowerment from a community of believers. Celtic Christian created a number of “foundations” (also called houses or monasteries) that became centers of civilization and learning as well as evangelism.
· Imaginative prayer. They took seriously the world around them as a gift from God and immersed themselves in its beauty and power as a means of becoming closer to God.
· Hospitality. They readily accepted seekers, guests, and refugees into their midst.
· A conversion model based on fellowship. Whereas the Roman model could be summarized as believe, belong, and practice, the Celtic model was belong, practice, and then believe.
How much of this can be credited to Patrick is by no means clear, but accounts testify to him as a man of both commitment and creativity. Patrick and his followers seemed to show a love and respect for their fellows which built a bridge over which unbelievers could cross without fear. Mythic or not, the example is inspiring to believers in the 21st century.
(A version of this was originally posted in March 2011.)