The Truth About Saint Patrick
Updated: Mar 17
There are many myths about Saint Patrick. One frequent misnomer about Saint Patrick is that he, technically, is not a saint. He has never been canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Tradition. However, if you read the sermon of the late Dr. D. James Kennedy below, you may find that Saint Patrick is a saint in the truest sense of the word. It is ironic that Saint Patrick's Day, March 17th (not his birth date), is celebrated during Lent because his life provides some deep opportunities for sincere reflection.
You may also listen to Dr. Kennedy's sermon on Youtube.com at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VmaKLfKiVg&t=3s
Who, Really, Was Saint Patrick?
By Dr. D James Kennedy (1930-2007)
A.B., M.Div., M.Th., D.D., D.Sac.Lit., Ph.D.,
Litt.D., D.Sac.Theol., D.Humane Let.
King James Version (KJV)
Now may we hear the Word of God as it is found in the first Chapter of Paul's Letter to the Philippians; Chapter 1, and we shall begin our reading with the fifteenth verse. May we hear God’s Inspired Word:
15 Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: 16 The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: 17 But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. 18 What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. 19 For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
May God speak to us today through His Holy Word and may His Name ever be praised. Amen.
This week, no doubt, some of you will be “a’-wearin’ o’ the green” because the great day is comin’ up—March 17, the birthday of the Roman Catholic Patron Saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, who drove the snakes out of the Emerald Isle. Indeed, something to be excited about.
Some people may even be carrying Shamrocks, as he taught us about the Trinity. It is a wonderful day for Irishmen all over the world, and I suppose there’s a little Irish in Kennedy somewhere.
However, there are a few things we probably ought to get straight about Saint Patrick before we begin the celebration—so we will at least know what we are doing. First of all, he was not Irish. “Aye and begorra. Not Irish, you say? Why St. Paddy is the very epitome of Irish.” Well, I hate to tell you, but of all people, he was English. Now that is enough to freeze the heart of any Irishman isn’t it?
Someone said, “Aye and Begorra, and I thought he was a proper gentleman and came from a dacent people.” The fact is that he was born at Bannavem, south of Dumbarton, Scotland, in the northwestern part of England in 389 A.D.
His father was a magistrate and a pastor of the British Church—so Patrick was a P.K., and he lived up to the stereotype. Patrick describes himself as a willful and rebellious youth.
Not only was he not Irish, but he wasn’t born on March 17. If that is not bad enough, may I also point out that he wasn’t a saint—at least he has never been canonized (made a saint) by the Roman Catholic Church. He was a saint in the sense in which God makes every true believer a saint, but only in that sense.
Furthermore (I hate to burst the balloon), the New York Times said that Saint Patrick is the “livest myth in history.” Alas, that is very true. No man has ever been more famous for what he didn’t do than Patrick. He didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland. One son of Erin said to me, “Well, then, what happened to them?”
I replied, “Same thing that happened to the kangaroos in America.” Some of you don’t know what happened to the kangaroos. Didn’t you know that Columbus drove them out, except that Columbus never set foot in America? No, there just weren’t any snakes, but some good Irishman thought that would be a good feat for Patrick to take credit for, so he gave it to him.
Beyond that, he wasn’t a Roman Catholic. Now that will come as a surprise to many, but he wasn’t. He had no connection with the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the Celtic Church resisted the Roman Catholic domination. It wasn’t until Henry II sent 5,000 ironclad soldiers to Ireland to subdue the land that they came under their domination.
In fact, the last vestiges of the Celtic Church submitted to Rome in 1109 AD, 700 years after Patrick. In his preaching there is no mention of a pope. There is no adoration or worship of Mary. There is no pleading for the saints. There is no talk about transubstantiation. There is no talk about purgatory. There is no talk about any single doctrine that is peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church.
If you want to see his gravesite, you can go to the churchyard of the Protestant Cathedral of Down in Downpatrick. There you will be shown a huge rock inscribed “Patric.” Keep in mind that a lot of Ireland is still Protestant today.
THE REAL STORY
Therefore, a lot of the myth is, of course, just that—a myth. The interesting thing, I think, about it is that the reality of Patrick is far more wonderful, but it is obscured by the myth, and people don’t know what it is. You are going to hear the real story of Saint Patrick. We might begin by pointing out that he never called himself a “saint.” There are three of his writings that are extant—His Confessions; Letter to Coroticus (who was holding slaves of his converts and killing and selling them); the Lorica, or The Breastplate, a beautiful poem he wrote to Christ.
If you read all of these writings, you will find that that is not the way he refers to himself. In his Confession, he says, “I, Patrick, the sinner.” If you read his letter to Coroticus, he says, “Patrick, the sinner. I came to Ireland a slave in Christ. I am a slave in Christ to this far away people.” Yes, indeed, folks, March 17 is “Sinner Patrick Day.” Though he was a young and rebellious youth, he was finally overtaken by the “Hound of Heaven,” Jesus Christ.
As a youth he lived near the beach on the western coast of England, just south of Dumbarton, Scotland. One day, at age 16, he and two of his friends had spent the day in the breakers in the ocean. They were sitting in the mouth of a cave in a crescent-shaped beach planning their escapades for the morrow, when suddenly they saw a band of “freebooters” (Irish pirates).
Now there were some very terrifying people in the northern part of England—the Picts and the Scots, for example, but they were nothing compared to the inhabitants of Hibernia, to the west, across the mists of the Western Sea. There dwelt the fearsome Druids with their live sacrifices and their total disregard for human life. They were the terror of all of England.
These freebooting Irish pirates came walking around the headland and toward the cave. The boys leaped to their feet and ran, as Patrick himself describes it in his Confession: “And we ran, rushed incontinently [that’s pretty good for a 16-year-old, I thought] right into the arms of the other half of the pirates who were coming from the opposite direction.”
They bound them hand and foot and dragged them aboard their ship with several hundred other young English boys and girls. They were taken to Hibernia and forced at whip point to march 200 miles inland in the northern part of Ireland up north of what is now Belfast.
There Patrick and the others were sold into slavery. He was sold to King Miliucc, a fierce chieftain who had little concern for his own life and no concern whatever for the lives of anyone else. With practically nothing to wear other than what he had had on at the beach, he was sent out to take care of the flocks and the pigs. His companions were taken away. He had two other companions who never left him throughout the six years he was there. They were always with him, he said. Nakedness, freezing his skin, and hunger gnawing at his stomach, he endured the most miserable form of servitude.
While he was there, he remembered what his father had said to him, “Patrick, there is a God, and He is a God who is able to deliver you. Do not forget that.” He remembered hearing his father talk about how God had loved the world and had sent His only Son in some remote extreme corner of the British Empire, way over on the other side of the world. There on a Cross He had died for sins—not His own—but for our sins.
In his Confession, Patrick tells how God opened his blinded eyes and gave enlightenment to his confused mind. He saw, and he understood, and he committed his life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and Master of all. Obviously, in those several years he had left there, he made a tremendous impact upon those he met. They thought of him as that “holy youth.”
At last, after six years, in the middle of the night one night he had a dream. In the dream he heard a voice that said, “Behold, your ship is ready.” He left the swine and staggered through 200 miles of frigid forest and finally burst out onto the beach. There he saw a ship loaded with Irish Wolfhounds being taken for sale in Europe. He went over and told the captain he had been kidnapped as a youth and had been a slave in Ireland. He begged that he would give him transportation home, but he rebuffed him and turned him away.
Patrick walked up the beach, and when he got almost to the edge of the forest, a hand clapped down upon his shoulder and spun him around and said, “Come back, boy. The captain changed his mind.” Ah, when the Lord makes passage for you on a ship, the captain doesn’t cancel the ticket. He sailed to Gaul; and from Gaul back to England to be reunited with his family. He was not really a boy anymore. He had left at 16; now he was 22 and a rugged young man. Most people would have died in the exposure he had endured. That was to stand him in good standing in years to come.
He tried to put the terrible experience out of his memory, but the people of Ireland kept coming back to his mind. One day, twenty years later, he had another dream where he saw whole hosts of Irish Druids standing on the beach looking out across the sea saying, “We beseech thee holy youth to come and walk once more among us.” He took that to be the call of God upon his life.
He prepared himself and set sail across the Western misty sea and landed in Northern Ireland in what is now Downpatrick, where he is buried. There he began to challenge the Druid chieftains, realizing that it wasn’t enough to win individuals; he had to go right to the centers of power. He took them on one after another. Finally, he went to Tara, the hill fortress of the High King of all the Druid chieftains and there confronted him with the Gospel. For 30 years he crisscrossed Ireland.
The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Patrick personally converted and baptized 120,000 people. He built over 300 churches. He found Ireland totally pagan and left it resoundingly Christian. He had an extraordinary impact upon the land.
One writer has said in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, that right after that, the Huns and the vandals and all the rest swept across Europe and destroyed all of the books they could find. It was the Irish who had been converted by Patrick, and his followers who took up “the great labor of copying all of Western literature—everything they could lay their hands on.” Without that, we would probably have no history of our own antiquity. There probably would be no modern civilization.
Patrick’s accomplishment was absolutely gigantic. No one had ever gone to convert a nation outside the rule of Rome, but Patrick did. As his text he had taken: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Every day of his life he was in mortal danger. He was in the midst of some of the fiercest, cruelest people the world has ever seen—the Druids. In his Lorica, or Breastplate, he says,
God’s shield to protect me,
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and near,
Alone and in multitude
Christ to shield me today
Against poisoning, against burning
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundances of reward.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left
. . .
It was in the power and protection of Christ that this man, who had apparently no fear of these people, took them all on, and by the power of the Gospel, he changed that entire nation. “For to me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21).
I would like to ask you a question, dear friend. How would you finish the sentence: “For to me to live is ....?” Well, Patrick tells us how he would have finished it up until he was in his teens. He said, “I lived for adventure, for pleasure, for excitement, for fun.”
I wonder how many would say something like that. “For to me to live is ... success, money, advancement, ease, opulence, fame.” What is it, honestly, before God? It is a question that one day we will all know the answer to, dear friend, for every thought will be revealed, and we will all know that for you to live is this ... But let me point out something to you. If the answer to that is anything other than Christ, you cannot say the second half of that verse, “And for me to die is gain.”
If you are living for any of the baubles of this world, death is not gain; it is loss. It is the loss of all of those things, whatever they may be. They are all gone. You would have to say, “For me to live is money, and to die is to lose it all.”
I hope that as we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this week that some of you will meditate upon his text, Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is ... is . . . is .... what? And to die is ... what?”
St. Patrick was a saint in the only real sense of that word, made such because he was sanctified by God, by His Spirit, as he submitted himself wholly to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and received Him as Savior and Lord.
He accomplished incredible things. Some say he was the greatest missionary since Paul. If any man can be said to have virtually converted a nation, it was St, Patrick—a hero far greater than the myth, and one that challenges every one of us today, almost 1,700 years later, with his text and Paul’s text, and I hope your text: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
PRAYER: Heavenly Father, for those who may be living for something other than Christ, we pray that you will speak to their hearts that they will see how foolish are the baubles of this world. How fleeting is this temporal life, and how soon we go to stand before Thee. We pray that any who may not have done so before, may right now say to Thee, “O Christ, like Paul, like Patrick, I surrender my life to Thee. I invite You to come into my heart, to take over my heart, my mind, my will, my all, and to use me to accomplish great things that I, too, may be able to say, ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’” In His name I pray. Amen.
Sermon delivered by Dr. D. James Kennedy on March 14, 1999, at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Below are the words of the hymn attributed to Saint Patrick.
Hymn #370, from The Hymnal 1982 - I Bind Unto Myself This Day - Tune: Saint Patrick's Breastplate
1 I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.
2 I bind this day to me forever, by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation, his baptism in the Jordan river, his death on cross for my salvation, his bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heavenly way, his coming at the day of doom, I bind unto myself today.
3 I bind unto myself the power
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet "Well done" in judgment hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors' faith, apostles' word,
the patriarchs' prayers, the prophets' scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.
4 I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven, the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even, the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, the stable earth, the deep salt sea around the old eternal rocks.
5 I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, God’s eye to watch, God’s might to stay, God’s ear to hearken to my need, the wisdom of my God to teach, God’s hand to guide, God’s shield to ward, the word of God to give me speech, God’s heavenly host to be my guard.
6 Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
7 I bind unto myself the name, the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three, of whom all nature has creation, eternal Father, Spirit, Word. Praise to the Lord of my salvation; salvation is of Christ the Lord!