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from "The Patrick Paradox," by Dana L. Robert, The Christian Vision Project, July 2007

The importance of St. Patrick to growing Irish self-confidence was expressed in 1921 by Seumas MacManus, author of the sentimental favorite Story of the Irish Race: “What Confucius was to the Oriental, Moses to the Israelite, Mohammed to the Arab, Patrick was to the Gaelic race. And the name and power of those other great ones will not outlive the name and the power of our Apostle.”

The irony of MacManus’ paean to Patrick as the emblematic Irish religio-political race warrior is that Patrick himself was a “Brit,” born into a Christian family in the Roman colony of Britannia. Even though the Britons and the Irish shared a Celtic cultural heritage, they were historical enemies who raided each other’s territories and enslaved the vanquished. Young Patrick was such a slave. He escaped from an Irish master after six years of harsh servitude. Later in life, as a Christian priest, he returned to Ireland to share his faith as a missionary.

Why did a former slave risk his life to teach his captors what he believed about God? How did he become the beloved St. Patrick, the “Apostle of Ireland”? Why would the Irish—or any other group of people, for that matter—accept a former slave in their midst and then be willing to be transformed by his message? These questions uncover an essential, and paradoxical, lesson about the practice of Christian mission. The more deeply Patrick engaged the particularities of Irish culture and identified himself as Irish, the more authentic and believable was his expression of the ideals of a universal community in which there is no longer “Jew or Greek,” “slave or free,” “male and female” (Gal 3:28). . . . The paradox of St. Patrick’s Day is that in celebrating the creation of Irish identity, it also commemorates the incorporation of a particular people into a vision of universal and multi-cultural community.