They tell me there’s nothing that raises your Irish spirit quite as much as marching up New York’s Fifth Avenue in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I’ll have to take their word for it, I’m afraid, since I’ve never been part of the line of march. But I’d also bet that seeing the parade is the next best thing, and that I’ve done time after time. There’s one occasion I remember especially. And, of course, a story goes with it.
It happened exactly 30 years ago, on March 17th of 1981, and I was with my good friend, Father John Catoir — a priest of the New Jersey Diocese of Paterson, which was and is my home turf as well. At the time he was off on a long run as director of The Christophers, based in Manhattan, and I was the editor-in-chief of Catholic New York, then the brand-new newspaper of the New York Archdiocese. Our jobs helped get us positions of honor for parade-watching: the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
It was a grand spectacle. We were just a few feet away from Cardinal Terence Cooke, and on that glorious day the scene was all spread out before us: the flags snapping in the breeze, the bands sounding out one Irish tune after another, the endless waves of green going by. It was sheer delight. And at one point, Father Catoir, a twinkle in his eye, leaned over to me and said softly, “This is not bad for a couple of guys from Jersey!”
That’s a long, long introduction to a reflection on the man who started it all: St. Patrick himself, a figure of myth and mystery of whom I’ve written before. Once, in a book I edited called Our Sunday Visitor’s Treasury of Catholic Stories, I discussed all the legends that have surrounded the great Irish saint, and concluded that even if everything can’t be proven, he was still quite a man.
We’re not sure, for example, where he was born. It might have been in Wales, or Scotland, or France. But he was definitely taken in captivity at some point to Ireland, and first lived the life of a slave. We’re not sure how he escaped, and we don’t know when — or how — he became a bishop.
Even the legends about him have question marks attached. Driving the snakes out of Ireland? Probably not. Using the three-leaf shamrock to explain the Trinity? Maybe. And maybe not.
What Patrick did do, beyond a doubt, was to bring the faith to a people living in pagan ignorance—to bring it to them in a way they could, and did, make all their own. It endured to a degree that it would in few other places. Patrick was nothing less than one of the greatest missionaries of all time. His stamp remains today on all things Irish, especially its people—no matter how far they may have strayed from their native land.
Patrick’s presence, then, is with us today, all over the world. It remains as we gather and pray in his honor. He helps us celebrate a heritage, but more — a faith that goes on despite challenges and an age that questions its fundamental truths.
So we march for St. Patrick — in New York and in cities across the country. Those of us who live around here ask your forgiveness, though, if we reserve a special place of honor for the Manhattan parade. And yes, I confess, even the guys from Jersey.
Gerald Costello is interim director of The Christophers.