Exploring St. Patrick’s Day

By Father Donald Bourgeois
Sun Episcopal Liaison

“In 431, before the arrival of St. Patrick, St. Palladius had been sent by Pope Celestine to the Christians [in Ireland],”  to add insult to injury, Butler’s Lives of the Saints continues, “The career of St. Patrick is obscured by later legend, and it is impossible to assert more than a few historical facts with any confidence; these are more prudently drawn from his own writings [Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and his Confession] than from his seventh-century biographers Tirechan and Muirchu, or other even later sources.”

Before any readers get their Irish up, the author then adds, “The most enduring feature of Irish Christianity through the centuries is its missionary spirit, which assuredly owes much to Ireland’s patron saint.”

Separating the legend from the facts of St. Patrick’s life may be impossible, but the impact of his life is undeniable.

Butler’s offers a credible outline of his life. Patrick’s late fourth century birth date is not mentioned. However, its location is given as Britain and he is said to have been baptized but raised in “a not very observant household.”

When Patrick was about 16, he and some of his father’s slaves were kidnapped by a band of raiders who took him to Ireland. For six years he tended his master’s flock, regretting his inattentiveness to his faith and his education.

Homesickness, loneliness, poverty and the harshness of the climate fed his desire to return home. Receiving a message in his sleep, “Soon you will go back to your own country,” Patrick  planned his escape.

After a journey of 188 miles, Patrick found a ship about to set sail. There is uncertainly about whether the ship landed in Britain or in Gaul, but eventually he was reunited with his family.

Then Patrick received another message in his sleep. He had a vision of someone coming from Ireland handing him a letter. In the letter he heard the voice of the Irish people calling out, “Come, and from now on walk with us.”

Deeply moved, Patrick believed that his mission was a divine call, “He who gave himself up for you, he it is that speaks in you.”

In his writings Patrick mentions preparing to become a deacon which was the origin of his call to orders, a decision sanctioned by his elders.

Selling his patrimony and refusing other aid, Patrick set out for Ireland — perhaps as early as the 430s or as late as the 460s — this time as a slave of Christ.

Patrick’s writings are too general to determine the exactness of his travels and his ministry. But in his Confession he expressed his astonishment at the work God accomplished through him, “I am greatly a debtor to the God who has bestowed on me such grace that many people through me should be born again to God.” He was also deeply impressed by how many of his converts embraced the priesthood, the monastic life and virginity.

In the latter half of the fifth century St. Patrick died on March 17.

The saint died; the legend was born.

All the snakes that St. Patrick drove from Ireland were never there in the first place. The snakes, experts say, are a metaphor – for pagans. St. Patrick was so thorough in spreading Christianity that he drove paganism out of Ireland.

The shamrock was not a visual aid that St. Patrick used to explain the Trinity. Rather, according to
www.History.com the shamrock was in ancient Ireland a sacred plant that symbolized the new life of spring. By the 17th century it had become a symbol of Irish nationalism as well as a sign of anti-English sentiment as the British government seized Irish land and outlawed the Irish language and Catholicism.

For well over a thousand years the Irish have celebrated St. Patrick’s feast day as a religious holiday. Because the feast always occurs during Lent, a dispensation is given so that people can celebrate with dancing, drink and food, especially the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage. Only after Irish immigrants settled in New York City did their Jewish neighbors teach them to substitute less expensive corned beef for their festive meal.

Another major element of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration is a parade. There are at least two cities which lay claim to hosting the first such march. Web site 
www.saintpatricksdayparade.com states that the first such parade was held not in Ireland, but in Boston, sponsored by the Charitable Irish Society in 1737.

But the web site History.com states that the first St. Patrick’s Day parade occurred in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched through the city.

Not surprisingly, these two cities host the largest such events in the U.S.

In New York City more than 150,000 participants and spectators will be involved in the Fifth Avenue march from 44th Street to 86th Street.

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