Rediscovering the Real St. Patrick for a Pre-Christian Missionary Age

By Deacon Keith Fournier Published on March 17, 2015

In Chicago, they dye the river green on St. Patrick’s Day — and the beer. On this one day, everyone is Irish, perhaps a tiny example of a Christian memory in the West, the memory of the fifth-century missionary who brought the faith to pagan Ireland. However, as we tumble toward the abyss in what some call a post-Christian culture, the heritage of the Apostle to Ireland may be lost, if we do not embrace anew both his message and his missionary vision. To do that, we need to think about our culture as pre-Christian rather than post-Christian.

Cultures formerly infused with Christianity are regularly called post-Christian. In April 2009 John Meachem, then of Newsweek magazine, wrote a widely circulated article entitled “The End of Christian America.” Yes, there are many good and genuine Christians, not just in the United States but in Europe, Canada and Latin America, but the decline of Christian influence is evident.

America still polls as one of the most religious western countries but it has less and less evidence of Christian faith in its public life. The British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote, “The creed of the English is that there is no God but it is wise to pray to him from time to time.” This is the creed of the West. Religion is only acceptable as long as it is kept private.

All this suggests that our culture is “post-Christian.” But that phrase is a counsel of despair.

Pre-Christian, Not Post-Christian

In contrast, taking our cue from St. Patrick, Christians should start to view our culture as pre-Christian, since that points to our hope in the supernatural work of God that can change the entire trajectory of a civilization. If our culture is pre-Christian rather than post-Christian, then that means it’s time to get to work!

We are at the beginning of a Christian awakening. Signs are seen across the confessional spectrum. The same Holy Spirit causing this awakening is helping us find one another as brothers and sisters — and link arms together — in a new missionary endeavor.

This is a highest common denominator movement. We have important differences and distinctive approaches in many areas, and we know that. However, as we pray, walk and work together, they are becoming gifts we give to one another. The highest common denominator drawing us together is a Divine Person, Jesus Christ. We are joined in Him and called to usher in a new missionary age. Just when opponents are ready to count the Church out, the sleeping giant is rising.

The Church is God’s plan for the entire world. She is the Body of Christ, still joined to Her Head. She was birthed from His wounded side on Golgotha. She is empowered by the Holy Spirit to make the Risen Christ present in a world that is waiting to be reborn.

The early Fathers of the undivided Christian church called her the world reconciled. She is a sign and seed of the kingdom of God. They knew that the church is an organic reality. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) Christianity is not about me and Jesus, but me in Jesus — and in Jesus with all who bear His name — for the sake of the world. We live our Christian life in the Body. To belong to the Head means to be a member of His Body. The church is not some-thing, but Some-One, in whom we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28) And she is placed on the earth to share the good news with the entire human race.

St. Patrick as Our Model

Patrick, the Bishop of Ireland, should be our model.

When Patrick landed in Ireland in 432, tasked by the Holy Spirit with evangelizing a pagan people, he drew from a deep, living, dynamic faith. He understood the challenge he faced. He had once been held captive as a prisoner in that land.

He knew the culture, the Druids who ruled it, and the realities he faced in a hostile culture. But, more importantly, he knew the Lord Jesus Christ and was fearless. History records that Patrick had a missionary strategy, and it bore extraordinary fruit.

When he entered into a district, he would first preach the Gospel to the Chieftains. Following their custom, he would offer them a gift to honor them. Only a few were converted, but Patrick knew what he was doing. He would then, following custom, ask for two favors. First, for a plot of land upon which to build a church. Next, for permission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people. Both would be granted.

celtic cross

Celtic cross

So he went to the sons and daughter of the rulers. He wrote in his book called the Confession, “Wherefore, then in Ireland, they who never had the knowledge of God, but until now only worshipped idols and abominations — now there has lately been prepared a people of the Lord, and they are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the Irish chieftains are seen to become monks and virgins of Christ.”

Patrick respected the civil order, but never compromised the higher order. He played the long game. He placed a high priority on the next generation. He preached the Gospel without compromise and let the Holy Spirit work.

As a result, Christianity spread across the whole of Ireland! From its beautiful shores western civilization, rooted in the Christian faith, advanced to change the whole world. The Gospel took root in the Celtic culture, transforming it from within as leaven in a loaf. Ireland came to be known as the “island of saints and scholars.”

Even now, in the midst of its current travail and the purification underway in the church in Patrick’s homeland, I believe it can — and will — rise again in Christ. The same Lord whom Patrick served is still at work, pouring out His Spirit and calling men and women to be fishers of men and women for a Third Christian Millennium. We live in a new missionary age and are called to put out into the deep and lower our nets for a catch. (Luke 5:4)

It is time for the Patricks of our age to arise!

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