Bishop Patrick of Ireland's Confession


Next year sees the 150th anniversary of the founding of Jesmond Parish Church. 2011 is also the 1600th anniversary of the death of Patrick, the “Apostle of the Irish” and whose work led to the conversion, through his successors, of the Scots and to the planting of churches in the North of England and on Tyneside. The West window of JPC reminds us not only of the great Christian Reformers of the English Reformation but also of some of the early Celtic Christian leaders. So as we celebrate our Founders, we should not forget the Reformers and these earlier Christians. All have much to teach us from their faith in Jesus Christ. Below are excerpts from the Confessions of Patrick, the founder of “Celtic Christianity”. They were sent to me from a Canadian church and are from an old translation. But they are still an encouragement for today. Patrick faced far greater hostility than we face as we seek to witness to Christ in 21st century Britain. God, however, honoured his obedience and faithfulness. Of course, he and the Celtic Christians (and the Reformers and our Founders) did not get everything right (nor will we). But as US evangelist D.L.Moody once said:

“I like my way of doing things than your way of not doing them”.

Patrick’s dates are estimated to be c.389-461 AD. His father was a local decurio (a member of a town council) called Calpornius, who was also a deacon in the local church in a village called Bannavem Taburniae. Where that was we do not know, except that it was somewhere in (mainland) Britain. When, however, Patrick was sixteen, pirates invaded and captured thousands (according to Patrick) including himself to work as slaves in Ireland. Patrick then spent the next six year in the wilds of ancient Ireland as a shepherd among pagan and barbaric people. While there, however, he had a conversion experience when, as he says,

“the Lord opened to me the sense of my unbelief that I might remember my sins and that I might return with my whole heart to the Lord my God.”

At the end of this period he escaped and made his way to a port 200 miles away, no doubt on the SE coast of Ireland. He there persuaded some sailors to take him on board their boat. So given a passage, he landed somewhere on the coast of Britain. After adventures when he felt sustained and protected by God, he left the sailors and returned to his home and family. The next we know is about his training for the ministry. A night vision then called him back to Ireland, probably in 432, where he continued to work until his death (c.461). At some point he was made a bishop, but it is not known exactly when or where or by whom he was consecrated.

Stephen Neil in his History of Christian Missions says:

“Ireland at that time was almost wholly, if not entirely, a heathen country; Patrick writes of his journeys to regions ‘where never any one had come to baptize, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm people’. He encountered much opposition – from the representatives of the old religion, from the kings whom he tried to convert, from British raiders who disrupted his work and massacred his converts. But he outlived his enemies and wore down the opposition; at the time of his death Ireland was largely a Christian country. In his writings Patrick gives the impression of being a man wholly possessed by the love of Christ; simple and not highly educated – he seems to have been painfully conscious of his lack of theological competence and fitness for the office of a bishop. Dreams played a large part in his experience, and he lived at all times conscious of a supernatural world both of good and evil.”

Why the precise details of Patrick’s life are difficult to piece together is because the only available primary sources of information are his own short writings, Confessions of St Patrick and The Letter to Coroticus. These documents have been supplemented and probably embellished by later mediaeval traditions. But as another commentator puts it, in spite of legendary material it is fair to say that over the thirty year period of his ministry he

“travelled throughout Ireland and that he had a considerable influence on the Irish chieftains of his day. He had special links with Tara, Croagh Patrick and Armagh (it is possible he went to Armagh in 442 and made it the centre of his work). There is no doubt that he broke the power of heathenism in Ireland and that his teaching was scriptural and evangelical.”

Patrick’s ministry had results later in mainland Britain with his form of “Celtic Christianity”. This was distinguished from the Roman form of Christian organization by having as the centre of church life not the diocese with its bishop but the monastery with its abbot; and from these monasteries, like a big parish church or cathedral with many staff, clergy and others went out evangelising the surrounding region and planting new churches.

The breakthrough for Britain came a hundred years after the death of Patrick. That was when in 563 a mission went from Ireland to Scotland and a Christian centre was established with a new monastery on the island of Iona. The leader there was Columba. This subsequently proved strategic for the conversion of the Scots, people in the North of England and parts of continental Europe. The North of England was evangelised by a mission under Aidan. He established a work in the North East in 635 and a monastery in Lindisfarne (Holy Island), the remains of which can, of course, be seen today. With the support of King Oswald (based at nearby Bamburgh) the team at Lindisfarne worked as missionaries among the pagan English of Northumbria. Also a school was set up in the monastery where boys learnt to read and write - reading the Bible and other Christian literature. The boys were also trained in mission work and girls, too, were encouraged to be educated. The community’s artistic skills were quite remarkable. The Lindisfarne Gospels are still world famous.

So as we begin to plan for 2011 on Tyneside, remembering 150 years ago, may we also remember Patrick and his evangelism in Ireland 1600 years ago.


1) I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniae; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive.

I was about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people – and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.

2) And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.

3) Hence I cannot be silent – nor, indeed, is it expedient – about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity; for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by Him, to exalt and praise his wonders before every nation that is anywhere under heaven.

4) Because there is no other God, nor ever was, nor will be, than God the Father unbegotten, without beginning, from whom is all beginning, the Lord of the universe, as we have been taught; and His son Jesus Christ, whom we declare to have always been with the Father, spiritually and ineffably begotten by the Father before the beginning of the world, before all beginning; and by Him are made all things visible and invisible. He was made man, and having defeated death, was received into heaven by the Father; and He hath given Him all power over all names in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess to Him that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe, and whose advent we expect soon to be, judge of the living and the dead, who will render to every man according to his deeds; and He has poured forth upon us abundantly the Holy Spirit, the gift and pledge of immortality, who makes those who believe and obey sons of God and joint heirs with Christ; and Him we do confesss and adore, one God in the Trinity of the Holy Name.

14) In the light, therefore, of our faith in the Trinity I must make this choice, regardless of the danger I must make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, without fear and frankly I must spread everywhere the name of God so that after my decease I may leave a bequest to my brethren and sons whom I have baptised in the Lord – so many thousands of people.

16) But after I came to Ireland – every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed – the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me – as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.

20) That same night, when I was asleep, Satan assailed me violently, a thing I shall remember as long as I shall be in this body. And he fell upon me like a huge rock, and I could not stir a limb. But whence came it into my mind, ignorant as I am, to call upon Helias [the Sun]? And meanwhile I saw the sun rising in the sky, and while I was shouting “Helias! Helias!” with all my might, suddenly the splendour of that sun fell on me and immediately freed me of all misery. And I believe that I was sustained by Christ my Lord, and that His Spirit was even then crying out in my behalf, and I hope it will be so on the day of my tribulation, as it is written in the Gospel: on that day, the Lord declares, it is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father than speaketh in you.

23) Again after a few years I was in Britain with my people, who received me as their son, and sincerely besought me that now at last, having suffered so many hardships, I should not leave them and go elsewhere.

And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victorinus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, “The voice of the Irish;” and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice – they were those beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western Sea – and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: “We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.”

And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry.

24) And another night – whether within me, or beside me, I know not, God knoweth – they called me most unmistakenly with words which I heard but could not understand, except that at the end of the prayer He spoke thus: “He that has laid down his life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;” and so I awoke full of joy.

25) And again I saw Him praying in me, and I was as it were within my body, and I heard Him above me, that is over the inward man, and there He prayed mightily with groanings. And all the time I was astonished, and wondered, and thought with myself who it could be that prayed in me. But at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying that He was the Spirit; and so I woke up, and remembered the Apostle saying: The Spirit helpeth the infirmities of our prayer. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit Himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings, which connot be expressed in words; and again: The Lord our advocate asketh for us.

33) Enough of this. I must not, however, hide God’s gift which He bestowed upon me in the land of my captivity; because then I earnestly sought Him, and there I fournd him, and He saved me from all evil because – so I believe – of His Spirit that dwelleth in me. Again, boldly said. But God knows it, had this been said to me by a man, I had perhaps remained silent for the love of Christ.

34) Hence, then, I give unwearied thanks to God, who kept me faithful in the day of my temptation, so that today I can confidently offer Him my soul as a living sacrifice – to Christ my Lord, who saved me out of all my troubles. Thus I can say: “Who am I, O Lord, and to what hast thou called me, Thou who didst assist me with such divine power that today I constantly exalt and magnify Thy name among the heathens wherever I may be, and not only in good days but also in tribulations?” So indeed I must accept with equanimity whatever befalls me, be it good or evil, and always give thanks to God, who taught me to trust in Him always without hesitation, and who must have heard my prayer so that I, however ignorant I was, in the last days dared to undertake such a holy and wonderful work – thus imitating somehow those who as the Lord once foretold, would preach His Gospel for a testimony to all nations before the end of the world. So we have seen it, and so it has been fulfilled: indeed, we are witnesses that the Gospel has been preached unto those parts beyond which there lives nobody.

38) For I am very much God’s debtor, who gave me such great grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere, for a people just coming to the faith, whom the Lord took from the utmost parts of the earth, as He once had promised through his prophets: To Thee the gentiles shall come from the ends of the earth and shall say: “How false are the idols that our fathers got for themselves, and there is no profit in them”; and again: I have set Thee as a light among the gentiles, that Thou mayest be for salvation unto the utmost ends of the earth.

40) For that reason, therefore, we ought to fish well and diligently, as the Lord exhorts in advance and teaches, saying: Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men. And again He says through the prophets: Behold, I send many fishers and hunters, saith God, and so on. Hence it was most necessary to spread our nets so that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God, and that there be clerics everywhere to baptise and exhort a people in need and want, as the Lord in the Gospel states, exhorts, and teaches, saying: Going therefore now, teach ye all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world. And again He says: Go ye therefore into the whole world for a testimony to all nations, and then shall the end come. And so too the Lord announces through the prophet, and says: And it shall come to pass, in the last days, saith the Lord, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And upon my servants indeed, and upon my handmaids will I pour out in those days of my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And in Hosea He saith: “I will call that which was not my people, my people … and her that had not obtained mercy, one that hath obtained mercy. And it shall be in the place where it was said: ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called the sons of the living God.”

41) Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God, that the sons and daughters of the kings of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins for Christ?

42) Among others, a blessed Irishwoman of noble birth, beautiful, full-grown, whom I had baptised, came to us after some days for a particular reason: she told us that she received a message from a messenger of God, and he admonished her to be a virgin of Christ and draw near to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day after this she most laudably and eagerly chose what all virgins of Christ do. Not that their fathers agree with them; no – they often even suffer persecution and undeserved reproaches from their parents; and yet their number is every increasing. How many have been reborn there so as to be of our kind, I do not know – not to mention widows and those who practice continence.

But the greatest is the suffering of those women who live in slavery. All the time they have to endure terror and threats. But the Lord gave His grace to many of His maidens; for, though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him bravely.

43) Wherefore, then, even if I wished to leave them and go to Britain – and how I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul [France] in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord! God knows it that I much desired it; but I am bound by the Spirit, who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun – nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord will, and will guard me from every evil way that I may not sin before Him.

46) Hence I ought unceasingly to give thanks to God who often pardoned my folly and my carelessness, and on more than one occasion spared His great wrath on me, who was chosen to be His helper and who was slow to do as was shown me and as the Spirit suggested. And the Lord had mercy on me thousands of thousands of times because He saw that I was ready, but that I did not know what to do in the circumstances. For many tried to prevent this my mission; they would even talk to each other behind my back and say: “Why does this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?” It was not malice, but it did not appeal to them because – and to this I own myself – of my rusticity. And I did not realise at once the grace that was then in me; now I understand that I should have done so before.

47) Now I have given a simple account to my brethren and fellow servants who have believed me because of what I said and still say in order to strengthen and confirm your faith. Would that you, too, would strive for greater things and do better! This will be my glory, for a wise son is a glory to his father.

59) And if ever I have done any good for my God whom I love, I beg Him to grant me that I may shed my blood with those exiles and captives for His name, even though I should be denied a grave, or my body be woefully torn to pieces limb by limb by hounds or wild beasts, or the fowls of the air devour it. I am firmly convinced that if this should happen to me, I would have gained my soul together with my body, because on that day without doubt we shall rise in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God and joint heirs with Christ, to be made conformable to His image; for of Him, and in Him we shall reign.

60) For this sun which we see rises daily for us because He commands so, but it will never reign, nor will its splendour last; what is more, those wretches who adore it will be miserably punished. Not so we, who believe in, and worship, the true sun – Christ – who will never perish, nor will he who doeth His will; but he will abide for ever as Christ abideth for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and the Holy Spirit before time and now, and in all eternity. Amen.

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