Today, as many of us don our green and take pride in whatever bit of Irish heritage we have, we asked one of our writers to first tell us about the ministry of St. Patrick and then give us an update on how the gospel is doing on the Emerald Isle. Here’s what he found.
March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, which celebrates the life of the man who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland sometime in the 5th century. What little we know about Patrick comes from a document called Confession, which historians generally credit to Patrick. Much else about Patrick is legend and tradition.
He came from a British-Roman family of Christians, although as a young man he was not devout. When he was about 16, he was kidnapped by Irish marauders and sold into slavery in Ireland, which at the time was still a pagan country ruled by Druidic priests. For six years, he tended his master’s flocks in County Antrim. During that time, which Patrick interpreted as God’s punishment for his lack of faith, Patrick prayed and sought God’s mercy. He was able to escape his slavery and return to Britain, where he continued to study and grow in the faith. After a dream in which the people of Ireland begged him to come to them—cf. the apostle Paul’s dream of the Macedonian man in Acts 16:9—Patrick returned to the former land of his slavery to preach the gospel.
In the centuries since, Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church have become nearly synonymous. To say you are Irish was to say you are Catholic. But just in the past decade, all that has changed, brought about by the general secularization found in Western Europe but accelerated in Ireland by the scandal of sexual abuse of thousands of children by Catholic priests.
As a result of these events, there is growing sentiment throughout the government and society to remove all influence of the Church from Irish society. Indeed, according to the 2011 Irish census, there was a fourfold increase in the number of Irish professing atheism or no religion since 1991. The fallout has been dire. Alcoholism, sex trafficking, depression, and suicide are major problems. Youth suicide is of particular concern. According to a recent European Union (EU) study, the suicide rate among girls in Ireland is almost two and a half times the EU average (2.09 per 100,000 vs. 0.84) and among young men, the rate is 5.12 per 100,000, twice the EU average of 2.39.
But there is hope. The evangelical church, at 1.5 percent of the population, is the smallest per capita in Western Europe, according to a recent study by Operation World. More encouraging, though, is to note that of the 242 evangelical churches identified in a 2012 survey conducted by the market research firm IPSOS MRBI, 60 percent have been planted in the past 30 years. Groups like Operation Mobilisation (OM), using their “Big Red Bus,” are bringing the gospel to Irish children, and its Philippian Project provides long-term workers for existing churches and new church plants to help provide much-needed manpower for the work of the ministry.
As Ludie Creech of OM says, ministry in Ireland is slow, hard, and requires perseverance. “Religion here often speaks more of identity—I’m Irish, therefore I’m Catholic—than it does of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” Ludie said. “We are encouraged that the gospel is faithfully proclaimed and that God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, brings about conviction of sin and calls people to salvation in His ever-perfect timing.”
In Touch Ministries is also sharing the gospel in Ireland through the In Touch With Dr. Charles Stanley program and the distribution of In Touch Messengers.