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Converter of All Ireland?

Not quite. 

Patrick (26)

St. Ailbe indeed made a circuit of the whole of Ireland, preaching baptism; and he converted many there, but not all; for the Almighty God willed that the blessed bishop Patrick, who came to Ireland later than Ailbe, should convert all the Irish to the faith. And so it came to pass. For Bishop Patrick converted all Ireland from heathenism to the faith and brought all to baptism.

 - The Life of St. Ailbe[1]

And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.

 - Acts 19.8-10

First, let’s acknowledge and address the hyperbole in this brief account of Ailbe’s influence on Patrick.

Patrick did not convert “all the Irish to the faith.” He did not claim as much for himself, and other lives of Irish saints from beyond the time of Patrick indicate there were still plenty of heathen knocking about the Emerald Isle. Neither did Patrick baptize all the Irish, since many remained unsaved throughout the period of the Celtic Revival.

Exaggeration is stock-in-trade in hagiographical writings to indicate greatness but not to provide a wholly true or accurate account of events.

Patrick did become a bishop to the Irish Christians, but not by any connection with Roman Catholicism. His mentors—including Ailbe and Declan—as well as his colleagues simply recognized the role God had assigned him and granted this office to him as their shepherd and overseer. It was because Patrick had this authority that he was able to excommunicate Coroticus and his soldiers and to instruct the communities of believers how to regard these outcasts.

The mention here of Ailbe as an evangelist to all of Ireland may also be exaggerated. The Life of Ciaran of Saighir mentions Ailbe as one of the four who were ministering in Ireland before Patrick—the names of whom match up with what is reported in the Life of St. Declan—but says nothing about his ministry; instead, it associates him with one place only, Emly in the southeast of Ireland.

It is quite possible that Patrick may have spent the early days of his mission in Emly under the tutelage of Ailbe. We do not know and can only speculate. But Emly is on the coast, just across from where Patrick would have departed in Britain, and Patrick may well have been made aware of the Emly community and their abbot while he was still a slave in the Wood of Foclut in the west.

Can we gain anything more from this brief mention of Patrick in the Life of St. Ailbe? Perhaps. Ailbe would have had experience in evangelism, that seems certain. It’s hard to imagine a community of believers gathering around him unless at least some of those had been led to Christ through his preaching and teaching.

Did Patrick learn to evangelize from Ailbe? Was his initial instruction in the faith and preparation for his ministry undertaken at Emly?

Again, we do not know. It makes more sense to me that Patrick would have gone straight to Ireland following his visions to find the nearest Christian community from which to launch his ministry. Reports following the Synod of Whitby of Patrick having been trained in a Catholic monastery on the continent, or to have been commissioned and sent by the pope, are more far-fetched and unlikely, it seems to me.

We remember Patrick for all the reasons we’ve seen in this study. But we must also not forget to praise God for those like Ailbe who had a hand in Patrick’s ministry. All of Ireland was not converted by Patrick, but very much of Ireland heard the Gospel because of his work. And because of the selfless and effective ministry of men like Ailbe in preparing and supporting Patrick throughout his ministry.

For every person who is having an effective ministry for the Lord there are others, unknown and likely unseen, who help to make it possible. Few—if any—of us are Patricks. Some of us might be Ailbes. Most of us are like those unnamed monks, scribes, and lay workers who attached to both these great saints and without whom their work would not have been possible.

You and I will not likely convert even all our own Personal Mission Field to the Lord. But we can be faithful there. And we can encourage and assist the believers we serve there to seek the Kingdom and righteousness of God and to be faithful in their own callings for His glory.

Let’s make sure we do precisely that.

For Reflection
1. What believers will you encourage today in their walk with and work for the Lord?

2. Whom should you thank today for the role they played in helping you know, love, and serve Jesus?

Psalm 71.12-16 (Solid Rock: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less)
O God be not too far from me; my ever-present Helper be!
Consume and shame my enemies; let them reproached and humbled be.
Refrain v. 3
A Rock of habitation be; command Your Word to rescue me;
my Rock and Fortress ever be!

But as for me my voice I raise to sing in hope and constant praise!
With saving grace my voice will swell Your never-ending grace to tell.

Your Personal Mission Field
Have you mapped out your calling from the Lord, your Personal Mission Field? Watch this brief video then download the worksheet and get started right away spreading the grace of God to the people in your life.

To learn more about working your Personal Mission Field, download our free course, “Disciples Making Disciples” by clicking here to watch an introductory video and download the course materials.

Support for Crosfigell comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.

All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] In De Paor, p. 235.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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