There’s an old rhyme that has not a word of truth in it, but helps us to think about Patrick and his faith. The rhyme comes in various forms and can be found in various street songs, it goes something like this:
“Saint Patrick was a gentleman, he came of decent people
he built a church in Dublin town and on it put a steeple”
What can we learn from lines of a song that belong more to a music session in a pub than to anything we might sing in church?
“Saint” is a word that has lost its original meaning. It is now applied to people regarded as different; it comes from the Greek word ‘hagios’ and it means ‘holy’. When we look at Scripture we see “saint” used in a very different way. Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians by saying, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus”, in some translations “saints” appears as “holy people”, the meaning is the same. When we read the New Testament, we see that all the members of the church are expected to be saints, they are all expected to be holy people. If Paul were writing a letter to our church, he would write to us as saints, he would write to us as holy people, not because we are perfect, we certainly are not; nor because we are good, perhaps sometimes we are and perhaps sometimes we are not; he would write to us as saints, as holy people, because to be a saint, to be holy, is to be people set apart. From our baptism onwards, we are meant to be people, who are different from the world, people set apart. The word “saint” reminds us of the people we should be.
Saint Patrick was not a gentleman, who says he was not? He does. He writes “Ego Patricius, peccator rusticissimus”, I am Patrick, a rustic sinner; I am Patrick a sinful plain countryman. Whatever Patrick’s background, that is how he describes himself. Patrick is saying class and background do not matter, it does not matter whether you are rich and sophisticated city person or an ordinary, plain country person: God has a plan for us. Do we believe this ourselves? Do we wake in the morning with a sense that God has a purpose for our day? Do we go about our daily tasks believing that whatever we do, we do it for God? Patrick was not a gentleman, he was just an ordinary countryman like ourselves, but God worked through him. As God worked through Patrick, God can work through us, if we let him. Saint Paul writes in Romans Chapter 8 Verse 28, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” May we have a love for God that allows things to work for good through us.
“He came of decent people”, says the song. What does Patrick say? “My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest”. He is telling us not about his family’s background, he is telling us about his family’s faith, about their involvement in the church. Patrick does not come from the gentry, he comes from an ordinary family; they were free people, but they were not part of the ruling classes. Patrick knows the story of Jesus is for all people, though, and has the confidence to talk to all people about his faith, whatever people’s background, Patrick was at ease talking with them. We are expected to be like Patrick, to treat everyone as equals, to be happy talking about what we believe to anyone whom we might meet. “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some”, says Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians Chapter 9 Verse 22. It was a verse by which Patrick lived and a verse to challenge us.
“He built a church”. Patrick would not have understood the way that we understand the word “church”. The church for Patrick was the church of the New Testament, it was the people. In Romans Chapter 16 Verse 3, Saint Paul says, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus” and he goes on, in verse 5, “Likewise greet the church that is in their house”. The church we find in the Bible and the church that Patrick built were not buildings, they were assemblies of people held together by their faith and love. As successors of Patrick, what sort of church do we build? Bricks and mortar are not a church.
The rhyme concludes, “in Dublin town and on it put a steeple”, and misses the nature of Patrick’s ministry, which was not in cities or grand buildings, but was out on the edge of things. Patrick worked far away from the great and the important, he worked in quiet places, in obscure places, in places others would have passed by. “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”, says Jesus in Saint Matthew Chapter 5 Verse 5, and Patrick spends his time among those favoured by God. It is a challenge for the church to always remember those whom Jesus believes are the blessed.
Patrick challenges us to be a holy people; to be a people who love God and all the people around us; and to be a people who build the church that God wants.