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  • Writer's pictureBradley Bell

Patrick of Ireland: The Unlikely Hero of Church History

Updated: Apr 22

“I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” I can still hear those words in the voice of Tom Hanks, playing the beloved character Forrest Gump in the 1994 film that bears his name. After I watched it over and over with my dad as a kid, it’s a movie that’s coded into my brain. As Dad would say, “Forrest Gump is my hero.”

Yet anyone who’s seen the film will know that Gump’s mental and physical limitations made him the most unlikely candidate for an American hero. The same could be said of the much-lauded Patrick of Ireland. Many know him as the patron saint of that land. Others are aware of his remarkable missionary accomplishments. But no one would have predicted such an outcome for a man of his pedigree.

Unlikely Hero

Given my childhood, you should understand that calling Patrick of Ireland “the Forrest Gump of church history” is to give him a moniker of highest honor. Much has been written and published (including at The Gospel Coalition) about the Patrick of history, such as Timothy Paul Jones’s two-minute introduction. These reflections are of tremendous value. But I wish to offer my observations from what’s thus far a less common angle. My perspective is shaped with the help of Irishman John Holmes’s biography, Saint Patrick: The Man and His Mission.

The book has a Gumpesque quality. It’s only 74 pages. It’s only $0.99. Shelved beside the likes of Haykin and Freeman, its contribution seems laughable. But that’s exactly why I find it so appealing. Its humble constitution is a picture of Patrick himself.

We know little about Patrick based on the historical record. We rely in large part on the missionary’s own writings. And if we’re to let the man speak for himself, then we ought to pay attention to his self-designations. Just as Paul’s signature of “apostle” and “bondservant” revealed much about him, Patrick has left us with autobiographical cues of his own: “a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”

What’s he saying to us? And why should it win our hearts?

The Brilliance of the Unlearned

Patrick is well known for having established the Irish church in the fifth century. This was no small accomplishment—especially since the Roman world considered this nation the ends of the earth. As such, Patrick was able to reflect on his missionary career and say he’d preached the gospel “as far as the point where there is no beyond.” For all he knew, “Christ’s commission to go into all the world had been carried out.” What a boast!

Observing the historic Patrick on such a stage, however, is no less disorienting than watching Gump receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Patrick was a man with little formal training. Why? Because while other boys his age were studying rhetoric and law, he was abducted and enslaved by Irish raiders. No wonder he confessed himself to be “most unlearned.” His true boast sounded more like this: “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”

I can’t help but find this endearing. Author Thomas Cahill apparently does too, describing Patrick as “a man of less intellectual refinement than Augustine but of greater humanity.” Holmes holds the same line as he concludes, “Those years spent in communication with God and in isolation from friends gave Patrick a preparation for his future work that no theological seminary could match.” Amazingly, it was Patrick’s broken human experience that laid the groundwork for him becoming a brilliant missionary.

The Triumph of the Despised

In addition to credentialing himself as “unlearned,” why would Patrick include that he was “utterly despised by many”? Was it the Irish raiders and slave masters who embittered his life for six years? Was it the peers who pitied him on his return to Britain? Was it the churchmen who jeered him for returning to Ireland? Was it the pagans who persecuted him at every turn? The answer: yes. It was all of them and more who found Patrick not unlike the apostles: “the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).

Similar to an innocent Private Gump on the front lines of the Vietnam War, Patrick of Ireland appears “like a bare-footed child walking in a minefield.” We should marvel that he isn’t killed in action—or at least not discouraged from his mission. How did he continue despite circumstances that seemed as though heaven itself were against him? Holmes answers, “Patrick had a faith, not born or developed in the study, but forged on the anvil of hardship and disaster and tested by pain and disappointment.”

Here again, Patrick’s deepest troubles only served to heighten his greatest triumphs. God’s strength was perfected in his weakness. I can say without apology, as a Christian whose education has also come primarily from the school of hard knocks, that Patrick is my hero.

Devoted to Christ

How does this heart-warming paragon of church history challenge me? How does he inform our missiology? In many ways. But attending to the angle of this article, I think Patrick confronts us with our credentials.

Is it our theological education that qualifies us for service? Is it a baggage-free background that equips us for foreign fields? Do we prefer intellectual refinement over a greater humanity? Why do we so deeply fear being “unlearned” and “despised”?

Holmes invites us to a better way. He writes in his final chapter that Patrick had “a great love affair in his life, one that neither cruel experiences nor passing years ever caused to grow cold: it was that love and devotion he had for Jesus Christ.” This is his self-designation for the ages. I’m not a smart man, Patrick might say along with Gump. But I know what love is.

Perhaps we’d do well to rehearse the same line.

This article was originally featured at The Gospel Coalition.

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