St. Patrick’s Syncretism

As we honor St. Patrick today, some with our green clothing and pinching those without, others with libations and late parties, I’ve been reflecting on my trip to Ireland last April for a Celtic Journey. For a week, I traveled across the lush green landscape in a large van with a dozen students and staff from InterVarsity to learn about the life of St. Patrick, a man of the 5th century whose memory has rippled across the globe 1500 years later.

It’s been a year since my boots collected moss and mud from the sheep pastures and bogs we trod and one thing that still resonates strongly with me is Patrick’s aptitude for cultural and spiritual syncretism. Most cross-cultural missions efforts transmit the gospel in the framework of the culture of the evangelist. But Patrick is one of those few wise ones who took time first to know the people, their values, their gifts and reflections of the eternal before promoting a new doctrine.

Ballintubber Abbey was a special place for me on the journey. Tradition has it that after his 40 days of prayer and fasting on the mountain 20 miles away, Patrick came to this town and baptized it’s first converts to Catholicism in the well. Today the town is called Ballintubber, modified from the Celtic Baile an Tobair which means “St. Patrick’s Well”.  The well is now adorned with stone pates and a modern sculpture representing St. Patrick with a shepherd’s staff.  This church has been a place of continuous worship for 800 years and counting since it’s establishment in 1216.  Parishioners even gathered for worship services in the icy, wet cold during the 235 years when the church had no roof, due to war, fire, and famine.  

What would lead to such devotion and dedication in the town named after this baptizing saint?  I believe Patrick knew his people, their land, and their culture. At age 16 he was brought over to Ireland as a slave.  Though he miraculously escaped several years later, his heart was burdened for the people of his island of captivity to know the Lord Jesus.  He returned to dedicate his life to sharing about Christ and he famously credited with the establishment of the Catholic church in Ireland.

Patrick understood Catholic culture.  Celtic spirituality had rich tradition of worship, especially around wells and trees, both representing an intersection between the spiritual underworld (beneath the earth) and the flowing of life to the earth’s surface.  Places that were previously symbolic of pagan worship became sacred places of prayer and meditation to the Creator.  All nature was held as sacred and therefore the earth itself a sanctuary in which to know the Lord and his wonderful characteristics.  It wasn’t hard for the Celtic people to accept a message that was so well described in their context.  Lost children of God were simply being reconnected to him through their own land, traditions, and recognition of the sacred.

This leaves me with two big impressions.  First, as a person of Irish descent (about 15% according to, I embrace the rich spiritual tradition of my Celtic heritage.  Like the people of this island, I feel near to the Lord when I’m surrounded by the things he has made and love to worship in nature.  Second, in my own cross-cultural ministry, I seek to find ways that Christ the Creator is already revealed in the cultural context of my friend.  If I can draw this to their attention, then perhaps they can know the God who has known them from the beginning and not as a foreign God of the West which I could easily misrepresent if I’m not careful.

And so I celebrate St. Patrick, the slave turned saint who loved deeply and left his mark not only on that island, but on the world.  Perhaps one day we’ll share a toast, drink something green, laugh heartily, and enjoy the riches of the eternal Kingdom.



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