Remembering St. Patrick and Celtic Christian evangelism

 On March 17th we celebrated the Feast of St. Patrick, the patron saint and evangelist of Ireland. Saint Patrick’s day, I’m proud to say, reminds me of my family roots:  both my maternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland following the 1916 war of independence and the hostilities that broke out. My grandfather, John McBratney, left Northern Ireland first and established the first Irish linen department store in the San Gabriel Valley (Southern California).  Later, he sent for his bride, Elsie, whose family lived in the south of Ireland. They were both members of the Church of Ireland (Protestant). Around the time they established the family store (McBratney’s) in Monrovia, CA, they became faithful members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and remained so until their deaths. It was at St. Luke’s Monrovia that my father served as a curate, met and fell in love with my mother and married her.


We love to tell stories about our families, and there’s no shortage of stories about the McBratney family. I’m sure there’s a bit of “blarney” in those stories too!  But on this Feast of St. Patrick, I’d like to step back and focus on the larger family, the Irish people, and how Patrick shared the Gospel with them and led them to Christ.


Patrick was not himself Irish, but rather the son of Roman nobility in Roman Britain. He grew up in a Christian family. At age 16 he was captured by pirates (Picts from Scotland who inhabited Ireland) and sold into slavery to a local Irish chieftain. Drawing from a variety of historical resources, George Hunter describes three profound changes that Patrick experienced that led him to evangelize the Irish as he did:


  1. While in captivity, herding cattle in the wilderness, Patrick connected with the “natural revelation of God,” says Hunter, “He sensed with the winds, the seasons, the creatures, and the nights under the stars the presence of the Triune God he had learned about in the Catechism.” You can see and feel Patrick’s sense of God in creation in the great hymn attributed to him, The Breastplate, and all its creative imagery!
  2. Patrick also came to understand the Irish Celtic people, their language and culture with an “intuitive profundity from the ‘underside,’” and
  3. He fell in love with his captors, identified with them and hoped for their reconciliation to God. After he regained his freedom, his God given love, identification and hope for the Irish people led him ultimately to return to Ireland as a missionary and evangelist to the very people who had enslaved him!


[See George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000) at pp. 13-14]


Have we gone through the same conversion to mission that Patrick went through? Deep understanding and genuine love for the people we are trying to reach with the Gospel of Christ is no less a need for effective mission today than it was in Patrick’s time!  We are living in a culture that is no longer defined by Christianity.  We are, like Patrick, missionaries to people who are profoundly ignorant of the person and power of Jesus Christ. Do we love them and understand them as profoundly as Patrick loved the Irish?


Hunter goes on to describe the “Apostolic team ministry” that Patrick led:


“Patrick’s entourage would have included a dozen or so people, including priests, seminarians, and two or three women.  Upon arrival at a tribal settlement, Patrick would engage the king and other opinion leaders, hoping for their conversion or at least their clearance to camp near the people and form into a community of faith adjacent to the tribal settlement.  The ‘apostolic’ (in the sense of the Greek word meaning ‘sent on mission’) team would meet the people, engage them in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared receptive.  They would pray for sick people, and for [demon] possessed people, and they would counsel people and mediate conflicts.  On at least one occasion Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish…” (at p. 21, emphasis added)


Team ministry. Going where the people have settled. Seeking out civic leaders, key influencers and decision makers in the community to share with them about Christ and the mission. Identifying the “persons of peace” who are receptive. Ministry in the power of the word and the Spirit! Healing and deliverance ministry for the sick.  Free counseling! Entering relational conflicts within the community as peacemaking servants and reconcilers. Identifying with the peoples’ labors and blessing them in those labors. Aren’t these the same missional values that we need today to reach secular people ignorant of Christ?


And how did Patrick and his apostolic team communicate the good news of Jesus Christ?  According to Hunter,


“They would engage in some open-air speaking, probably employing parable, story, poetry, song, visual symbols [like the shamrock as a symbol of the Trinity], visual arts and perhaps drama to engage the Celtic people’s remarkable imaginations [remember Patrick’s love for God he learned in the wilderness, in creation].  Often, we think, Patrick would receive the people’s questions and then speak to those questions collectively…they would invite responsive people into their group fellowship to worship with them, pray with them, minister to them, converse with them and break bread together…[joining] with each responsive person to reach out to relatives and friends…”  (at pp. 21-22, emphasis added)


Communicating timeless Biblical truth in every way that the people you are trying to reach can understand. Be creative! Use beauty itself as a window into the greatness and goodness of God. Open-air, living room and coffee shop. Publicly and privately. Inviting people to belong even before they believe! Sharing relationally. Expanding the circle relationally. Taking the time to answer peoples’ questions and address their doubts. Praying with them at every opportunity!   Aren’t these the same ways and means that we too can use in building relational bridges through which we can share Christ with our secular friends and neighbors?


Patrick’s goal was to plant a church with these Biblical and missional values in every community he visited. As Anglicans, we share that goal today.  Hunter sums up the Celtic Christian way of evangelism—the way of Patrick—with four observations:


  1. Apostles like Patrick find a way to connect the Good news of Jesus Christ with the deepest needs of the people—physical, emotional and spiritual;
  2. There is no shortcut to understanding and identifying with the people you are trying to reach. If they know that we really care, they will connect that caring to the loving God we are presenting to them, in contrast to the capricious Gods they serve;
  3. Christianity with the power of the Holy Spirit gives people victory over terror, anxiety, hatred, depression, helplessness and other destructive emotions; and
  4. Christianity should give the people we are reaching creative outlets “for expressing their constructive emotions through indigenous oratory, storytelling, poetry, music, dance, drama, etc. in God’s service.” In other words, like Patrick, we engage the whole person (mind, emotions, and body) with the whole Gospel—while creating space through the church for people to reshape their culture and the arts Biblically!  (at pp. 69-70, emphasis added).


So, let’s remember St. Patrick with more than corned beef and cabbage over a good pint of Guinness. Let’s remember the way Patrick models for us how we too can reach secular people ignorant of Christ—lovingly, with compassionate understanding, creatively and relationally, through preaching and power ministry, through church planting and church revitalization with the transforming love of Jesus Christ!


The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.

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