Patrick of Ireland was actually born in England towards the end of the 4th Century. He was a Briton – an English Celt – for the Anglo-Saxons had not yet arrived on British shores. Patrick was a typical rebellious pastor’s kid. His grandfather was a priest (they were still allowed to marry then), his father a deacon, and his mother a niece of St. Martin of Tours. But despite this background (or perhaps because of it), he entirely disinterested in matters of faith.

By Patrick’s time, the Roman legions had abandoned Britain and emboldened Irish raiders were pillaging the west coast, stealing riches and taking captives to be ransomed back to their families or sold into slavery in Ireland. Patrick was taken captive in one such raid when he was 16, and he spent several years as a slave tending his master’s sheep. During his captivity, he discovered true faith and after 6 years the Holy Spirit led him to escape across Ireland where he talked his way aboard a ship and eventually returned to England.

However, God called him to return to Ireland as a missionary to the very people who had enslaved him. Fortunately, having spent his key formative years in Ireland, he understood the language and culture as a native would. This effectiveness is why Patrick is associated with bringing the Gospel to Ireland, despite not being the first Christian in Ireland or even the first missionary to Ireland.

One key to Patrick’s success, according to historian Thomas Cahill, was how he framed the Gospel message in a way the Irish could truly understand. The usual Gospel presentations of a meek and mild Christ going quietly to his death evoked contempt from the Irish culture with its adulation of mighty heroes. Christ was seen as a weak God for weak people.

Patrick came at things entirely differently. The pagan Irish, like many tribal cultures, practiced human sacrifice. In most cultures, human sacrifice was voluntary, and in response to some crises. Furthermore, the tribe usually sacrificed their best – after all, the greater the calamity, the greater the gift to needed placate the spirits.

Building on this cultural foundation, Patrick explained that the Very Best in all creation sacrificed Himself so that we no longer have to sacrifice our best – and He did so while we were still His enemies! This was a glorious hero who sacrificed Himself for the good of His people. And not only His people; Christ sacrifices Himself to magnanimously save His enemies and make them His people, too. This was a Christ the Irish could follow.

And they did. During Patrick’s 20 years of ministry, the majority of the island converted – and this all the height of Ireland’s commercial and military power. This was the first “people movement” in Christian missions.

Patrick also knew that, like pagan tribes throughout history, the Irish had a great sense of vulnerability to the many dangers that surrounded them, whether physical or spiritual. As a result, the Irish invoked all sorts of charms to protect themselves from those dangers they feared most. Rather than dismissing this as superstitious nonsense, Patrick validated their fears – but offered a different solution. He agreed that we are surrounded by evil on every side in this life, but he insisted that Christ our protector is great than them all. Toward this end, Patrick taught his new disciples prayers of protection called loricae (or breastplates).

The most famous of these loricae is Patrick’s Breastplate, which has become well known in the recent revival of interest in Celtic Christianity. Note that it is not a petition to God for protection, but rather claiming God’s power for protection. The message of the prayer is: here is the power of God as we have seen in the life of Jesus Christ, the history of the Church, and even in His Creation itself. That power is available to us today – claim it, speaking it to your own soul and to the world around you.