Who was St. Patrick?

St. Patrick probably wasn’t the first Christian missionary to Ireland, but he was certainly the most successful. His example has inspired thousands of missionaries who’ve followed him, in every denomination.

Bryan Tyndall of Global Outreach International said two seemingly incongruous things stand out about Patrick’s story.

“He didn’t have a lot of formal education but he was extremely intelligent and effective at overcoming cultural differences,” said Tyndall, vice-president for missionary development at the Tupelo-based organization.

Tyndall helps train and equip some 200 career missionaries in 39 countries. He said Patrick’s example of converting pagans is instructive for modern missionaries.

“He was bold and assertive when he needed to be but he approached the culture and the people from a position of respect and love, and that’s why he succeeded,” said Tyndall.

Mississippi native David Humphrey works with AID Sudan, a Texas-based, non-denominational missionary organization. AID missionaries employ the technique of oral storytelling, a long-standing tribal mainstay, in order to reach indigenous people in Africa.

Humphrey said it isn’t hard to imagine that St. Patrick must have taken a similar tact with the Celts. He said St. Patrick’s use of Celtic symbols, like the “shamrock,” as tools for evangelizing was ahead of its time.

“Language is a lot more than words,” said Humphrey. “St. Patrick helped shape the essential thrust of what we today call the missionary movement, going into a culture and finding the clearest, most effective, most respectful way of reaching the people.”

The Rev. Tom Lalor, pastor of St. James Catholic Church and a native of County Westmeath, Ireland, said the Irish missionaries who followed Patrick helped keep learning alive during the Dark Ages.

“When the Roman Empire began to fall, and libraries were being burned, Irish monks went out all over the empire and carried on intellectual traditions as well as spreading the gospel,” he said. He said there’s no small amount of irony in the fact that, although under British rule, the English language was forced upon Ireland, the Irish have perhaps the greatest national literary tradition.

“Joyce, Wilde, Yeats, all these wonderful poets and authors,” said Lalor. “English was forced upon the Irish, and they gave it back on a silver platter.”

Galen Holley/Daily Journal