So often throughout church history, we highlight the stories of great successes, but we don’t always highlight the stories of great failure—unless we want to paint someone in a bad light. We do tell stories of great triumphs in the midst of great challenges and these make incredible stories! I have been thinking about some of the stories of failures throughout church history—and how some of the greatest leaders we have ever seen actually underwent great failure before making a real impact. Had these individuals given up after failing the first time, the church might not look like it is today.
The title of this post pretty easily gives away the fact that I’ll be writing about St. Patrick today. Which seems fitting considering today is March 16. Now you might be asking yourself: “St. Patrick failed?” Well… yes and no. St. Patrick’s story is rather difficult to understand fully. To give a little background information, it is helpful to note that St. Patrick has become a bit of a mythical man. I say this because there are many things attributed to him that he may have never actually said or did. For example, the use of the shamrock to explain the Trinity—he likely did not do that. But it makes a really great story. Fortunately, St. Patrick wrote about much of his missionary work in a book called Confessio. We can gather a lot of details from this resource, but there are still many holes in the story.
In case you are unfamiliar with the story of St. Patrick (Patrick, hereafter), here is the quick version. Patrick was born to a Roman-British Christian family, but was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. He was held captive in Ireland for about six years, learning the local language and agricultural labor. In a dream one night, he was given a plan to escape—so he fled to a ship on the coast and traveled with the crew to Europe. He would then join a monastery and train for ministry. In another dream, he heard the people of Ireland calling for him to bring the gospel to them. Missionaries had tried to evangelize Ireland prior to Patrick, but the success with limited.
Patrick followed this calling and decided to begin his ministry close to where he had once been a slave (at least that is one theory—the evidence is hard to evaluate). His ministry was not accepted in that area and so he left and traveled further north. By this point, Patrick had several reasons to have given up and viewed his work as a failure. The mere fact that Patrick had once been enslaved was enough to be seen as failure—the truth is that many people didn’t easily escape slavery. To then return to the place you had once escaped seems a bit strange. But to then be rejected would have definitely felt like failure. If I had been Patrick, I might have seriously considered packing up and going back to Britain or Europe.
Throughout Patrick’s ministry he would be accused, persecuted, bound, and potentially put on “death row.” Although we are uncertain of the charges for these punishments, we know that he had little political support among kings and leaders in the communities. The ministry he had was challenging and lonely. However, it is believed that Patrick baptized thousands of people and planted hundreds of churches throughout Ireland. Imagine if he had given up at any point along the way. To be honest, the church today might be totally different.
I teach a brief survey of church history class at my church and one participant shared this idea: “We often don’t think about the influences of these people and how the church could be different today if it had not been for their work.” I think this is completely true of Patrick. This is a whole book worth of content on its own, but the Celtic Christians would later revive a spiritually dying Britain and Europe. Rome and Europe would become weakened by its own political corruptions and attacks from invaders. But the work of the isolated Celtic Christians would bring the hope of the gospel again. Had Patrick not brought the gospel to Ireland, the European church might have never been revived by the work of the Celtic missionaries.
What in your life have you given up on that perhaps you need to pick up and try again—for the sake of the gospel? Is there something that God has called you to do that has the potential to make a big difference? In my next post I’ll be exploring the story of Pope Gregory I, Augustine of Canterbury, and the mission to England.