Connecting St. Patrick to St. Andrew’s

St. Patrick’s Day didn’t use to be a big deal to me. It was fun, but since I’ve only got the tiniest smidges of Irish in me (to my knowledge), I didn’t really get into the holiday that
much. That changed around the time I went to Ireland, just over ten years ago.
I went with a small group of friends from church to a missions conference just outside Dublin, and afterward, we traveled across the country. I was only there about ten days, but it left a mark on me. The country is gloriously beautiful, the people funny and friendly, and the Celtic spirit of the place took a deeper root in my soul.
I know that St. Andrew’s is rooted more in the Scottish side of Celtic, and that we typically focus on our Celtic heritage more in the fall with our Faire, but bear with me and I’ll explain why taking a look at St. Patrick, his ministry, and modern-day Irish missions could be useful to us at this very moment in our own ministry. Currently as a congregation, we are looking to the future with discussions about how to serve, include, and grow in children, families, youth, and younger adults. We discussed this at our annual meeting, as well as at another meeting after church on the 24th of February, and I’m personally very excited to see how much passion and interest St. Andrew’s has in growing these areas.
Many of us are versed enough in either Church History or Celtic Lore (or both) enough to recall that St. Patrick was actually from Britain, was kidnapped by Irish pirates as a young man, lived there several years as a slave before escaping home, and later in life felt a call to the church, and specifically to return to Ireland. So what made his ministry so unique? And what can welearn from it today, in our own efforts at St. Andrew’s to engage our community?
In preparation for my trip to Ireland, I was asked to read George G. Hunter III’s “The Celtic Way of Evangelism,” which traces the life and ministry of St. Patrick, as well as why churches across the world are tapping into his evangelism style to reach their own communities. It left an impression on me as well (and was at least part of how I wound up at St. Andrew’s myself!).
According to Hunter, St. Patrick made his way across Ireland by establishing monastic communities—but not the kind we associate with the word “monastery.” These were usually set at a crossroads, instead of off the beaten path, and were home to an entire community of people (not just monks or nuns as was tradition). They were places where seekers could enter and be not just welcomed, but could belong and become part of the community if they wished. They were invited in and assigned a friend who would welcome and guide them. The Celtic peoples have a strong tradition of hospitality, and Patrick utilized that to create an environment where people belonged, even before they believed. This is an area where I feel St. Andrew’s is already strong in echoing our Celtic traditions.
Another remarkable feature of St. Patrick’s work in Ireland is that he didn’t simply bring the Roman Church with all its traditions and try to transplant it on Irish soil. He knew and understood the culture from his time there, and used the knowledge to engage the Irish people. He used their love of stories and songs and nature to point to Christ. In fact, his (and his followers’) disregard for enforcing Roman traditions on the Irish was sometimes a source of contention with church officials in Rome. St. Patrick cared more about the Irish people than about trying to establish foreign structure and traditions on their culture. This is an area where I think there is room for growth—in our own church, in our denomination, and the church in America in general.
I learned from the missionaries in Dublin that the younger people of modern Ireland—who make up half of the population—are both weary and wary of religion. They have seen it be twisted and weaponized through abusive clergy and religious wars. Like the contemporary people of Ireland, there are a lot of younger people in our own culture today who are weary and wary of religion. They often have a passion for social justice, however, and a zeal to see the marginalized treated with dignity and humanity. This is one of those beautiful areas where St. Andrew’s has achance to shine a holy light, because such things are not only part of the episcopal ethos and important to many of us at St. Andrew’s, but close to the heart of Christ. I hope that in the days and months and years to come that we can follow the example of St. Patrick to use areas like this to illuminate to an increasingly post-Christian society where the Kingdom of God is already at work, and invite them to join us, just as Patrick did with the people of his day.
I learned from my study of St. Patrick’s ministry that to reach a culture, you have to know and understand it first, and love the people, before you can begin to speak their metaphoric language and point them toward Christ. And I learned from the missionaries in Dublin that sometimes reaching a post-Christian community means you have to start with healing relationships. When dealing with a population that has sometimes been wounded by the very gospel that was meant to be good news, more emphasis is often put on providing services to the community and building back that trust. My hope is that as we move forward, we can prayerfully consider how to engage our own community, perhaps even taking a few cues from St. Patrick and his legacy of Celtic missions.