Well, here we are with another St. Patrick’s Day upon us. As a fellow of Irish heritage (and one who appreciates a taste of whiskey from time to time) I ought to be all over this annual celebration of everything from the Emerald Isle. Alas, I find myself grumbling. You see, I know a little bit about St. Patrick. And I suspect that he may be grumbling a bit too.
Last weekend the Mrs. and I were in St. Louis. On Saturday evening we took our son and one of his friends to dinner. Our restaurant was on the same block as an Irish tavern, something with “Mc” in the name, I believe. A full week before the actual St. Patrick’s Day the place was a mob scene, complete with the two guys wearing full leprechaun suits. And I could not have been less interested.
In our modern culture, St. Patrick’s Day has become to bar owners what the Christmas season is to the world of retail in general. It is true that American commerce has instituted “St. Patrick’s Day sales” for most everything but it is the two week carnival of alcoholic excess that seems to be the point of the whole thing.
I suspect that if I had gone into McSwill’s Pub (or whatever it’s called) last Saturday night and offered a crisp $100 bill to anyone who could tell me something true about St. Patrick, I would probably still be holding the cash. Driving the snakes out of Ireland is nothing but legend and doesn’t count. But just to make things fair, I will give you the answers for next time.
Patrick was born to a prominent Roman family living in the British Isles at around 386 A.D. At about the age of sixteen, he and some of his father’s slaves were captured by an Irish raiding party and taken to the Emerald Isle. Patrick was probably not impressed with Ireland’s beauty as he was forced to tend sheep as a slave and suffered cold, harsh living conditions. He did, however, became fluent in both the Celtic language and in the understanding of Druidism – two things that would later become very important.
He managed to escape after about six years and made his way back to England. His experience had brought him to a religious conversion and after a time of study under St. Germain was ordained a priest and later consecrated as a Bishop.
Despite his drastically improved life, Patrick could not forget the Irish people he had come to know. He thereafter sought and received the commission from Pope St. Celestine I to carry the Christian faith to Ireland on behalf of the Universal Church, a mission he began in approximately 433 A.D. For context, Patrick would have been about a generation younger than St. Augustine (Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa) and pre-dated the work of Sts. Dominic and Francis by roughly 800 years.
One persistent legend is that upon re-entering Ireland, the Warrior-Chieftain Milchu tried to kill him. But when he raised his sword to smite Patrick, the arm became immovable until he confessed his obedience to him.
We have, of course, a limited ability to separate fact from legend some sixteen centuries after the fact. What we do know, however, is that Patrick must have been some kind of fearless evangelist. We know this because within maybe thirty years he had completely uprooted traditional paganism and planted the Catholic faith so deeply that the Church in Ireland would become instrumental in spreading the faith across Europe and even eventually to America. The 1911 article in the Catholic Encyclopedia reports that Patrick consecrated 350 Bishops in a country that was quite inhospitable to many of his efforts.
You can still read St. Patrick’s own telling of his life’s story (The Confession of St. Patrick), something that is almost universally considered genuine. Its sixty two paragraphs are well worth reading for a rare window into one man’s struggles to propagate the early Christian faith.
One thing about the life of Patrick that you will not read is his habit of evangelizing the Irish by regularly drinking himself into a stupor, proving to be “one of the guys” and someone that ordinary Celts could relate to. No, Patrick was as dedicated as he was fierce and humble, choosing for his life to serve as an example to those of his adopted land.
In any case, getting hopelessly drunk and embarrassing yourself (and maybe others) may be a perfectly fine way to enjoy the NCAA basketball tournament or protest the need to eat fish during lent, but is no way to celebrate the life of Patrick.
The ways that we should celebrated his life (as the Catholic Church does every year on the 17th of March) would be the same ways in which we would celebrate the lives of St. Joseph, St. Joan of Arc or St. Benedict. In other words, treat others better, be more generous to those who lack what you have and buff up your prayer life a little. Or maybe even share something about a great Saint to others who may not know much about him.
And there is, of course, no reason that those things cannot be done in combination with a modest sip of good whiskey. After all, legend has it that it was Patrick who introduced the stuff to Ireland after he found the climate inhospitable to grapes. But green beer? Just . . . no.