“Heart of my own heart” – Missionary Inculturation


The word “missionary” comes from the Latin word “missio” which means “sent.” A Christian missionary is one who is “sent” into another area to share the good news about Jesus.

The missionary is, therefore, quite categorically, a person of two worlds: the Sending world, and the world to which they are Sent. There is always a level of caution about the Sending world, whether there is an institutional agenda or a political one or something  else. The Jesuit missions have often faced those charges and the nineteenth century Protestant missionaries to India and Africa  too.

But the best missionary is one who is “inculturated;” who understands that the culture of the Sending World is unimportant now, whilst the culture of their missionary station is of crucial importance.  Gladys Aylward wrote to her parents from China: “Life is pitiful, death so familiar, suffering and pain so common, yet I would not be anywhere else.  Do not wish me out of this or any way seek to get me out, for I will not be got out while this trial is on.  These are my people, God has given them to me, and I’ll live or die with them for Him and His glory.”

This certainly expressed St Patrick’s commitment to the Irish people, and in this sense, he was a true missionary. He completely identified with Ireland, the world to which he was sent, and, as best we know, never left it.  He became as embedded in its culture as a stone in a plum.

Ireland was the  “heart of [his] own heart”till the day he died.

In fact, though, St Patrick probably had three cultural bases, and was almost certainly tri-lingual. He would have grown up in an area where Latin was the official language, but where some form of British was the common language of nearly everyone around him. The opening part of the Confession suggests a privileged beginning: My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae.

Latin was the language of the church, the language of privilege, education and culture.

To be taken from that, into six years of captivity with no opportunity to ever speak in Latin, indicates a total immersion into another culture, during which time he would have begun to speak and then to think in Irish.  So whatever his levels of fluency in either British or Latin, Patrick would have gained a skill that would later set him apart from his more educated fellow priests.

He had become a man of two worlds.

In spite of the “rusticity” of Ireland, Patrick would have needed a sophisticated voice to succeed. He was a true evangelical who brought the Gospel to those who had not heard it. Doing so incurred great risk, given the sort of decentralized, rural society of Ireland. To travel through Ireland was to travel through petty kingdoms, and being a Civis Romanus meant nothing to the petty kings.

Moreover, Patrick was using his rhetoric to introduce new ideas into a preliterate culture. He was preaching to a people new not only to Christianity but to the very idea of a single God. There would be no value in offering brilliant theology. St Patrick worked as St Paul did at Corinth, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.”

According to Paul Lynch, ” The rhetoric of public address in preliterate societies usually aims at consensus and the preservation of the values and traditions of the group. It is a conservative or corrective force, not an instrument of change.Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation.”

To introduce Christianity to the Irish, then, required a subtle strategy. Patrick was trying to use rhetoric as a means of transformation in a culture that usually used rhetoric for reaffirmation. It is not the work of the propagandizer to convince the convinced, but to plead with the unconvinced, which requires him to use their vocabulary, their  values, their symbols, insofar as this is possible. At the risk of suggesting a similarity between evangelizers and propagandizers, it seems likely that Patrick understood that he had to identify himself with the vocabulary, the values, and the symbols of the Irish. In other words, he had to reaffirm as much as to transform.

But he was uniquely capable of doing this. During his captivity he would have learned not only the Irish language but also Irish mythology, which he likely used to his advantage. Patrick probably began by identifying himself as a religious figure in Irish terms. For example,  white clothes, such as bleached robes, were especially favoured as symbols of purity and cleansing of sin. Since Druids also wore white, Patrick may have consciously used this colour of clothing to mark himself as a religious practitioner.

It is quite likely, if not certain, that Patrick appealed to the Irish by recasting Christian myth in Irish terms. Irish mythology, for example, features a “trinity” of gods: Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma. Matching the new Christian myth to the old Irish myth would have been the obvious evangelical strategy in a traditional oral culture.

Dressing thus, and speaking thus would have allowed him to travel more freely about the island, a special privilege afforded to the Druids.

Patrick also practiced the custom of offering gifts to various minor kings he encountered, (as Section 51 of the Confession suggests). Such gift-exchanges are common in traditional cultures . Such moves would have been crucial for evangelizing the Irish, among whom a Christian bishop had no recognized social status.

But St Patrick moved with care and intelligence into the very heart of Irish culture and mores with the one purpose of proclaiming not Rome (Imperial or Catholic), nor intellect and literacy as social desiderata, but Christ the Saviour, Christ the High King of Ireland.


Drawn partly from Paul Lynch here.


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