What did Saint Patrick do? The true story of everyone’s favorite party saint is fascinating, but every March I’m surprised that no one talks about Patrick’s actual past. You’ve seen him dressed up as a leprechaun, and you might have heard some nonsense about him getting snakes out of his country, but you probably don’t know about St. Patrick the abolitionist.
It started when a group of pirates attacked Patrick’s city and kidnapped members of his church, forcing them into slavery. Patrick was horrified – but not just because his friends were captured. These were no ordinary pirates; the slavers believed they were Christians, too.
Patrick assembled a group of priests who were brave enough to go to those criminals and beg for the slaves to be freed. It was a brave gamble, but it didn’t work, and the priests were turned away. They were forced to walk away without rescuing their friends, hearing the pirates laughing at their backs.
Patrick’s next move was to write a letter to the pirate leader (apparently, pirates were pretty literate, back then), and it’s this letter that endears him to us.
Patrick said that he couldn’t tell who was worse off – the captured slaves or the pirates. Being enslaved is terrible, but being unable to tell right from wrong is awful, too, he said. Patrick had been a slave when he was a boy and he couldn’t understand how a group of Christians could justify doing that to someone.
St. Patrick’s effort to stop slavery makes him the earliest known abolitionist in Western history. Plenty of people protested their own slavery (“Let my people go!”), but no one had moved to stop the practice altogether as Patrick did. (That we know of.) Unfortunately, we do not know what happened next in Patrick’s story – the records are lost in history.
Saint Patrick’s work continues: Last week, a government official in India rescued a dozen people from slavery and returned them to their families. One of them was a man who met his daughter for the first time when he returned – the person who enslaved him would not allow him to go home for her birth. It’s always hard for me to comprehend how slavery somehow still exists in our modern world.
So while you’re drinking green beer or drawing shamrocks this week, remember that St. Patrick stood for what was right when everyone around him was just following the crowd.
You’ve probably heard stories about Patrick running snakes out of Ireland or other tall tales, but none of that really happened. His true legacy, which is much more interesting, is what we should start passing on.