Patrick and St. Patrick’s Day

Chicago celebrates St. Patrick’s Day by making the Chicago River green for the day. This annual tradition goes back to 1961.

When I served as a youth pastor, one St. Patrick’s Day celebration, I thought it would be fun to provide a breakfast for the youth and add green food coloring to everything. So, we had green orange juice, green milk, green butter, green eggs, green everything. Although food coloring does not change the taste, for some reason drinking green orange juice and green milk somehow just tasted different!

Like many of these celebrations, myth often overshadows the true and real story. Regarding Patrick (385-461) and his ministry in Ireland, there is a lot of myth, legend and embellishment. But once you sift that out, there is also truth, which far surpasses the myths. Although he was never recognized or acknowledged as a saint in the traditional Roman Catholic sense, he was considered the Apostle of Ireland.

One of the things I encourage you to do is to during these annual remembrances, rather than just let the day pass, is that you use it as an opportunity to study, to learn more about the person, in this case Patrick and his call to God and his call to Ireland, first as a slave and second as a missionary, so that you know the difference between what is truth and what is fiction.

Here are a couple of brief historical overviews of the history of Patrick. In this first one, Michael A. G. Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, writes about 10 Things You Should Know about St. Patrick.

  1. Patrick was not Irish.
  2. Patrick left two genuine writings: his Confessionand his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.
  3. Patrick’s conversion came as a result of his being taken as a slave to Ireland by Irish raiders.
  4. Patrick’s mission to Ireland from around AD 430 to 460 was virtually the only evangelistic mission in fifth-century Western Europe.
  5. Dreams play a prominent role at key turning-points in Patrick’s life, but Scripture was the central factor in the major decisions of his life.
  6. We have no idea if Patrick read any other books than the Bible, for that is the only book he ever quotes.
  7. Patrick’s love for the written words of the Bible was passed onto the Celtic church, which became the most learned body of churches in
  8. At the heart of Patrick’s faith was his love for the doctrine of the Trinity.
  9. Legends about Patrick are legion.
  10. Patrick’s mission to Ireland has been an inspiration to a number down through the years.

In this second historical recounting, Stephen Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and the host of the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History, asks and answers the question, Who Was Saint Patrick and Should Christians Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?

After a brief historical review of Patrick’s life and ministry, Nichols concludes with a prayer traditionally attributed to Patrick, one for which he is known. It is referred to as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”

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,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in every eye that sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.


Austin: "Hi Greg! Thanks for writing about St. Patrick here. A lot of Christians don’t know about his story. I am a Catholic and I have to ask for you to clarify a point you made: “Although he was never recognized or acknowledged as a saint in the traditional Roman Catholic sense, he was considered the Apostle of Ireland.” What is the traditional Roman Catholic sense that you reference here? He is acknowledged as a saint of the Church and he is someone that we look up to as an example for his role in the spreading of the Gospel message to Ireland. May the peace of Christ be with you!"

Greg Strand: "Thank you, Austin, for reading and commenting. Here are two responses to your question. First, for Protestants, all who are Christians are saints – they are called apart by God. There is no biblical distinction between saints and Saints. Second, although Patrick is considered Apostle of Ireland and is venerated by some, he has never been formally canonized by a Pope. This means for the RCC, he is not a saint with a capital S."

Austin: "Thanks for your response! Catholics would also agree that all who are Christians can be called saints (sanctified, set apart, holy ones) in one sense of the word because we are set apart and called to be holy through our baptism into Jesus Christ. However, there is a biblical distinction that St. Paul refers to in Colossians 1:12, “Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” We make the distinction between the “saints in light”, since they are the ones in Heaven already and they are presently partaking in the fullness of Holiness. Thus, we reserve the title of Saint for anyone in Heaven. (Only some people are formally called a Saint, but anyone in heaven is a Saint) Now as for the canonization of Patrick, I am aware of what you are mentioning. This is actually a common misunderstanding regarding canonization within the Church. There was no formal process like there is now to recognize Holy people as Saints. Instead they were called Saints more by recognition by the Church (local and congregation usually) of their Holy lives or martyrdom for Christ. This is like saying St. Peter or St. Paul , the Apostles, are not Saints in Heaven because they were not canonized formally. I surely believe they are in Heaven. Also, it is important to remember that the Church doesn’t control who goes to Heaven and who doesn’t by declaring or not declaring a Saint. It is simply to set that person as an example of a Christian who lived a life that points to Christ. I hope that was a clear response for you."

Greg Strand: "Thank you, Austin. I appreciate the time you took to spell out a RCC version of what it means to be a Saint. Here are a number of comments in reply. We believe we are saints on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22; Gal. 2:16; 3:26-29, not our baptism, unless the baptism is Spirit-baptism (1 Cor. 12:13) at the time of regeneration (Tit. 3:4-7), the time at which one is born again/from above (Jn. 3:3, 5), which is the fulfillment of the old covenant (Ezek. 36:25-27). Furthermore, we believe that on the ground of the completed work of Christ and faith in him, there is no distinction between the saints, those called apart by God and to God (Col. 1:16; Rev. 4:11). That is to say, because of and through Christ and faith in him, there is no distinction between saints and Saints. As I noted, there was no formal canonization by a Pope. This was something acknowledged locally. However, in order to attempt to prevent abuses, Pope Alexander III (1149-1181) ruled that canonizations would be controlled and approved by the Roman See. This led to a complicated process worked out by Pope Urban (17th century) and authoritatively expounded by Pope Benedict XIV (19th century). There are two steps for the RCC to declare one a Saint. The person first must be beatified, which consists of more local recognition and the cult/veneration is permitted. Some of those who are beatified make it to the next stage, that of canonization in which they are considered and called a Saint. Since Vatican Council I (1869–70), canonization is considered an infallible papal act. Additionally, once the Pope canonizes the beatified and makes them a Saint, they are worthy of veneration, which is mandated, and they are able to intercede for the faithful. We would affirm there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). There is no one necessary, there is no one able to intercede for us besides the Holy Spirit, our earthly intercessor (Rom. 8:26-27), and the Lord Jesus Christ, our heavenly intercessor (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). This is, as you would surmise, one of the major distinctions between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism. Thank you for your comment, and for the opportunity to spell out some of the differences that remain between the RCC and Protestantism. This reflects that rapprochement has not yet happened, which is important to remember as we focus on and celebrate the 500th anniversary of the truth and legacy of the Reformation (generally considered October 31, 1517, the date Luther posted the 95 Theses). The Reformation was noted for the rediscovery and commitment to the formal principle, the supreme authority of the Bible, and the material principle, the gospel of Jesus Christ expressed in justification by faith.

Austin: "Greg, Christ is risen! Indeed, truly He is risen! Happy Easter! I apologize for the delay in my response. I am thankful for your understanding of the current canonization process. Technically there are about 5 steps towards the canonization of a Saint. I don’t think it is necessary for me to mention them since Google exists nowadays. The focus of my response is regarding those in Heaven, so whenever you see me write the word “saint” or “Saint”, I am referring to someone who is in Heaven. If I am referencing it in another way, I will be sure to carefully distinguish and explain it. As Catholic Christians, we also affirm there is one mediator between God and men, as Paul writes in his letter to Timothy that you mentioned (1 Tim. 2:5). Christ truly is our one, true mediator. Take this scenario. Your friend is struggling with something in life such as a certain temptation or habit. Possibly he is in a state where he feels unable to pray or he is struggling with the faith and knows he needs his brothers and sisters praying for him. He asks you to pray for him. Do you pray for him? 1 Tim. 2:1 has Paul asking for us to pray for “all men” because it is “good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.” He directly asks us as Christians to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for all men. I am sure that you would pray for your friend. This is what we are called to do as Christians. When your friend asks you to pray for him, and you pray for him, you are in fact interceding for him. He has asked you to pray for him and you have done just that. Clearly you are not putting yourself in disagreement with Paul in his letters to the Romans (8:26-27, 8:34) and to the Hebrews (7:25) by interceding in prayer for your friend. As Catholic Christians, we believe that all the people in Heaven can and arepraying for us. This is because we believe that “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another”. (Romans 12:5) I am sure you agree that you are also part of the Body of Christ. Additionally, in Romans 8:35-38, Paul mentions that “neither death nor life…shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ.” We believe that those who are in Heaven are part of the Body of Christ, and thus still connected to us on Earth who are also part of the Body of Christ. You said that “…once the Pope canonizes the beatified and makes them a Saint, they are worthy of veneration, which is mandated, and they are able to intercede for the faithful”. It is true that the Pope canonizes the beatified and officially calls them a Saint. By the Church saying that a person is a Saint (big S) they are set up as an example for the entire Church. The Church hasn’t done anything to make that person “worthy” of veneration. It simply declares the fact that they are worthy. It is wrong to say veneration is “mandated”. There is no mandate to venerate these Saints. Since we are in the Body of Christ we are, of course, called to be in communion with them as we are with one another. It is also wrong to imply that the act of canonization by a Pope makes the Saint “able to intercede for the faithful”. The ability for us to pray for one another (intercede) comes from God alone. No man, or Pope, can instate or revoke this. From what you wrote, it would seem that you hold the Catholic view of Baptism. If you read the verses you cited, John 3:3,5 you will see that it says “born of water and the Spirit”. Catholics totally acknowledge this and we believe that our Baptism is one of “water and Spirit”. When we are Baptized by water, we receive the Spirit. Thus it is a regeneration of water and Spirit. We point to Acts 2:38, where Peter says “be baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Further, look to Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. When he goes into the water and is baptized, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him (visibly) in the form of a dove. Visually we see an example of that which would be later taught by Jesus, the Apostles, and the Church. There is no celebration in the division in God’s Church. The effects of the Reformation are still felt today by all Christians. We should always pray that we can once again be united as Christ prayed “that they may be one”. I would recommend reading the Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I would also recommend reading the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Upon reading these documents I think you will find that rapprochement is indeed happening and has happened. You mentioned the authority of the Bible. It is authoritative because it is the Word of God. Everything it contains is true. I think it is important to remember how blessed we are to have access to the Bible. The early Christians did not have access to the New Testament because it had not yet been written. And so, it makes sense to me when Paul says that the Church of God is the pillar and foundation of truth. Christians could look at the Church to learn what is true, even before the New Testament existed in a physical way. The New Testament was written by members of the Church, Christians inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Church, in councils, also took on the task of deciding which books ought to be a part of the Bible that you now use today. The same Church decided which books were heretical and ought to be discarded. I trust the Early Church, and by extension the Catholic Church today, because I trust the Bible that was passed on to us by them. I do not worry that I am missing books of the Bible thrown out in ancient councils, since they were councils of the Church which is the pillar and foundation of truth. To deny the authority of the early Church is to deny the authority of the Bible. To me personally, the lives of the Saints are something that I can look up to. I see how they lived a life of witness that points to Jesus Christ. They struggled with things that I struggle with, and they overcame. I can see how God’s grace worked through these people."

Greg Strand: "Thank you for your reply, Austin. I appreciate the manner in which you have engaged in our discussion and differences. You have done so with a kind and gracious spirit. I will make three brief comments in reply. First, there are common beliefs that are shared between the RCC and Protestants. Furthermore, we are co-belligerents on some of the key moral and cultural issues of the day, e.g. marriage, sanctity of life, and others. Second, what you spell out indicates that significant doctrinal differences persist between your exposition of the RCC beliefs and what Protestants believe. Finally, although there are some attempts at coming together and putting away differences between the RCC and Protestantism, at least Lutheranism, there has not the rapprochement about which you write."

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