Wednesday, March 17, 2021

St. Patrick and Mission from the Margins

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Today is St. Patrick's Day, the celebration of Irish heritage. The day is scheduled on the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who is commemorated for bringing Christianity to Ireland. While many will use the day to reflect on what it means to be Irish, I want to use the day to reflect on what it means to be a missionary, like Patrick.

It's easy in contemporary times when thinking about Patrick to think about Patrick's centrality. As a recognized saint not only in Catholicism, but in Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism, too, he is a central figure in Christian history. As patron saint of Ireland, he is central to Irish Catholicism and to Irish identity, both in Ireland and throughout the world.

Yet at the beginning of his missionary labors, what would most have struck his contemporaries about Patrick was not his centrality but his marginality. First, he had a marginal status in Ireland. Patrick was a foreigner in Ireland, since he was born a Roman Briton. Worse still, he was a former slave to the Irish. His status as a foreigner and former slave and his refusal to participate in systems of Irish royal patronage left him with a margin legal and social status within the island, without many rights or protections.

Although he would eventually become a bishop, Patrick also held a marginal position in the church at the beginning of his mission. He was ordained and somewhat literate, but relative to other clergy of the time, he had held no prominent positions prior to his mission nor was he well-educated. The two documents he left behind are written in poor Latin. His return to Ireland as a missionary seems to have been a personal decision taken in response to a dream, not a commission by some central authority in the church. Palladius, a wealthy cleric from France, not Patrick, was the first bishop sent by the pope to the Irish to serve as the bishop of the Christians there.

Yet it was Patrick, despite his outsider status in Irish society and marginality within the church hierarchy, who would go on to become revered as the apostle to the Irish, forging Irish Christianity and Irish identity in the process.

Part of this transformation speaks to the process of hagiography and memory that happened after Patrick's death. Patrick's present centrality in tales of Irish nationalism and Irish Christianity speaks to the centuries of retelling and transforming of his story that have happened since his life.

But part of this transformation speaks to some deeper truth about mission. Viewed from a time after the heyday of Western imperialism and well after the founding of Christianity in new regions of the globe, it is easy to associate missionaries with power and prominence, both ecclesial and secular. And in some instances, missionaries did go out with the force of church structures and imperial powers behind them.

But looking carefully at the story of Patrick reminds us that just as often, this was not the case. Successful missionaries have often come, not from the centers of power in their time, but from the margins. They have succeeded in their mission despite and quite often because of their marginality, not their centrality in their contexts. They have embodied Paul's writing in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, being able to boast only in the Lord, not in their human status.

There is, however, a second takeaway from Patrick's story: the categories of center and margin are not absolute and immutable. Relative to Roman British society, Patrick had some prominence as a semi-literate cleric. But in Irish Celtic society, his status was much lower. Moreover, Patrick's relative marginality or centrality within Irish society changed over the course of his life as he won converts and became bishop and has certainly changed in the centuries since then.

So, the marginal may become those at the center and vice versa. This should not surprise those who proclaim a Messiah who preached that the last will become first and the first will become last. It is a reminder to all Christians that the places and persons where the Holy Spirit is working now and will prosper in the future are not the same as where the powers of the world are now seated. And it is a reminder that when we tell the story of those who brought the gospel to us, we must not let their successes make us forget their origins. Let those who boast, boast in the Lord. Slainte, and Amen!

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