Emergents are stepping on the scene as Christians who are willing to ask tough questions, challenge old traditions and theologies, and pursue a quest for a faith and theology that's relevant in a new day and age. Saint Patrick was perhaps the first emergent.
He is credited with having evangelized Ireland, being the first person to really get Christianity to take root there. But it wasn't easy. During Patrick's time, most Irish were involved in what would now be considered "pagan" religions. They followed the old religions of the Celts. So it was hard for people embedded in one culture and religion to give that up for a new one, especially one that came to them from Rome. So instead of dominating everyone and insisting on his way being better than theirs, Patrick took time and found connections between the Celtic religions and Christianity. Slowly but surely, these connections opened doors for him. What resulted was the spread of Christianity. But it was not Roman-dominated, Roman-cultural variety of Christianity. It was a Christianity no one had really encountered before. It was a form of Christianity that looked Celtic in nature, but had Christ at it's center core.
So as we celebrate Saint Patrick's day, celebrate someone who learned how to find faith in a way that was relevant and meaningful to the people around him.
I'd like to offer a few other thoughts to the question at hand. Saint Patrick used 'unconventional methods' for conversion in his day:
Methods for Conversion
Surely Saint Patrick openly preached the gospel message while among the Picts and Irish peoples, but that method does not alone account for conversions to Christianity. In terms of numbers, Patrick himself suggested that he baptized and converted “many thousands,” to the faith. It is true that Patrick had some success converting the sons and daughters of Irish Kings to Christianity, but actual figures of the numbers of converts among the entirety of the Irish population remain unknown. There is no solid mention of him teaching the catechism of the Church to new believers, so there is little evidence to suggest that the new converts maintained the Christian faith without a foundation in doctrinal teachings. It was quite possible that converts reverted back to their traditional pagan beliefs, especially without any clear support from Church leaders on the European mainland.
One way for Saint Patrick to ensure success for evangelizing opportunities while among the Irish was to live in solidarity with those whom he was trying to convert. Approaching the Irish as an equal while showing no pretense of superiority allowed the Irish to become more receptive of Christian teachings. In fact, Patrick himself avowed in his Confession that he “sold this nobility of [his],” to enhance the commonality between himself and his Irish audience.
Although he may not have been as well versed in the teachings of the Church as other missionaries, Saint Patrick did understand the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Yet, Saint Patrick seemed to be haunted by his lack of education, and claimed that evangelizing among the Irish “revealed his lack of learning,” according to his own Confession. Limited education would prove to be an obstacle for Patrick, and considering that “every word [he] spoke had to be translated into a foreign tongue,” communicating with the pagans in Ireland became a daunting task.
A complete lack of adequate translators hindered Saint Patrick’s attempts to explain the Gospel message and herald his message of the dogma of Jesus Christ. In fact, later Christian missionaries aware of the challenges faced by Patrick would ensure that a sufficient knowledge of foreign languages was known before embarking on missions abroad. Jesuit missionaries in later years would pay particular attention to the details of languages while traveling in Asia and North America.
Saint Patrick was able to preach and lead significantly by example, so when Bishops in Europe accused Patrick of various unknown charges, his reputation inevitably suffered among the Picts and Irish people. As a result it can be assumed that progress being made in gaining favor among the people would have diminished considering Saint Patrick’s authority as Bishop in Ireland became challenged. Overall, his mission to Ireland cannot be determined as successful or not in the missionary sense due to the limited knowledge we have concerning his life there. It can be assumed that the immensity of the challenges facing Saint Patrick would have made any significant change to the religious landscape of Ireland difficult.
Truly, Patrick lived a missional life with Christ at the center by living 'in solidarity with those whom he was trying to convert. Approaching the Irish as an equal...(and) showing no pretense of superiority, (which) allowed the Irish to become more receptive of Christian teachings.' Patrick was also very immersed in Celtic traditions and Celtic religious lore and unlike the legend, Patrick used the Celtic Triads and reverence for three-ness to teach the Trinity rather than the shamrock itself.
Saint Patrick and the Snakes:
Another tale about Patrick is that he drove the snakes from Ireland. Different versions of the story, tell of him standing upon a hill, using a wooden staff to drive the serpents into the sea, banishing them forever from Ireland.
One version says that an old serpent resisted banishment, but that Patrick outwitted him. Patrick made a box and invited the snake to enter. The snake insisted it was too small and the two argued. Finally to prove his point, the snake entered the box to show how tight the fit was. Patrick slammed the lid closed and threw the box into the sea.
Although it’s true that Ireland has no snakes, this likely had more to do with the fact that Ireland is an island and being separated from the rest of the continent the snakes couldn’t get there. The stories of Saint Patrick and the snakes are likely a metaphor for his bringing Christianity to Ireland and driving out the pagan religions (serpents were a common symbol in many of these religions).
Patrick also created tension between himself and Pope Celestine I much like non-fundamentalists and fundamentalists today. Here is how:
Ireland's First Christian : Truth or Myth
So did Patrick or Palladius bring Christianity to Ireland? No, there already were Christians in Ireland before Patrick. The first Christians may have been people, like Patrick, brought to Ireland as slaves, or others who had traded with, or even lived for a time within, the Roman Empire. The evidence is compelling: for the Bishop Palladius to have been sent from Rome a Christian community must have been already been established in Ireland, probably arriving as early as the 4th Century.
The Celtic Church
An interesting issue about this early period is whether there was any distinction between the 'Celtic Church' and the more traditional Roman Church. Some see Patrick as the embodiment of the Celtic Church, with Palladius representing the latter. This is seen by many as an attempt to view the past through the political and religious distinctions of today. However, what may actually be being picked up here are tensions between the established Christian orthodoxy and the newer Irish Christianity built over older pagan ways. That tension came to its conclusion at the synod of Whitby in 664 when a debate over the use of the Celtic or Roman tonsure and method of dating of Easter was finally resolved with the Celtic Church adopting the Roman way.
Christianity in Ireland succeeded because of its ability to adapt older pagan customs to the new ways. A good example is the pagan festivals that became Christianised, Samhain becoming All Souls, and Imbolg becoming St Brigid's Day. Indeed, many of the holy wells associated with St Patrick, found all over the country, are believed to have pagan origins.
The Roman Church and the Celtic Christians
Unfortunately, neither the Celtic churches nor the movement Patrick founded lasted indefinitely. In the late sixth century, missionaries from the Roman church began converting the English (the descendants of the Anglo, Saxon, and Jute immigrants/invaders). Of course, the Roman missionaries couldn't help bumping into the "native" Christians. Nor could they help feeling uncomfortable with the hundreds of thriving Christian communities that didn't answer to Rome and saw no reason to follow doctrines, dogmas, and regulations that had entered the Roman church since the third century AD. Roman church leaders were also appalled at the married clergy, at the monasteries' lax discipline, at the lack of emphasis on Original Sin, and at the Celtic monk's haircuts, which looked silly to the monks on the continent.
When the time came to discuss reconciliation between the Roman and Celtic Christians, several points of serious disagreement could have been debated. But according to historical records, most of the emphasis seemed to be on when Easter should be celebrated. Without too much fuss, most of the Irish church leaders capitulated on when to celebrate Easter (and most other points of difference) by the year 697. The Irish monks changed their haircuts, and Ireland became Roman Catholic almost overnight. In return, Ireland got to keep her patron saint. (Clergy in the British Isles continued to marry for another four centuries, but that's another story.)
Sadly, many of Patrick's reforms, especially literacy, were reversed by later imperialism. After the English did invade Ireland, most Irish were denied the rights to read, to live above abject poverty, or even to speak their own language. Centuries of such treatment should have broken the Irish spirit forever. But Irish music, culture, and self-identity survived, and beginning in the 1800s, actually revived.
See also: St. Patrick's Day is March 17th New Style and March 30th Old Style!! and A Friar's Life: The Real St. Patrick. Here is a snippet of The Real St. Patrick:
Patrick the Mystic
"Patrick was a mystic who felt the presence of God in every turn of the road," Cahill says. "God was palpable to him, and his relationship to him was very, very close." In fact, he says, it was very much like the relationship in the Bible that Jesus has with God the Father. "It is very familiar and comfortable, and that is how Patrick saw God at work in the world."
So what are your thoughts?