St. Patrick’s Day is here! Time for leprechaun jokes, green plastic derby hats, and an authentic corned beef dinner, along with other things not exactly saintly.
Are those the best we can do in his honor?
St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most misunderstood holidays we have, or at least one of the most changed. Few seem to know what it’s about, other than commemorating an Irish priest who chased the snakes out of Ireland.
I was in my 20s when I first learned about Saint Patrick not as a fun little myth but as an actual man. I was interested in my cultural and faith heritage, so he was a natural subject. I read Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization (a delightful history about the role played by Irish monks in saving early literature and history from Viking raiders) and St. Patrick’s own two writings: Confession (an autobiography); and Letter to Coroticus, a sort of open letter censuring a man for kidnapping some of Patrick’s Christian converts into slavery. Frankly, the story of his life is much more interesting than what we think we know about him, and it always surprises me that it hasn’t been more widely embraced yet. It’s a great underdog story.
Patrick was actually born a Briton, a member of a Celtic tribe inhabiting what we now call England but then ruled by the Romans. His name was Maewyn Succat, and his dad was a Roman official in the backwaters of the empire. They were Celts, like the Irish, but a different tribe, and they didn’t always get along, probably because the Irish Celts liked attacking people and taking slaves. He died on March 17, 460 AD at about age 73.
Around the age of 16, Patrick was caught by slavers and taken back to Ireland, where he was forced to herd sheep. He worked and prayed there for six years; one day, he heard a voice tell him to head for the coast, where a boat would take him away. He ran away for 200 miles, found a boat, convinced them to let him on, and set sail. They made land but then got lost, wandering without supplies for four weeks. The sailors, mocking his faith, told him to pray for food. He told them that if they wanted a favor from God, that they should at least have the courtesy to ask Him for it themselves; they did, and shortly thereafter encountered a herd of wild pigs. The sailors decided that maybe he knew what he was talking about.
Reunited with his family, Patrick studied Christianity, becoming a bishop and crediting his six years in captivity with bringing him closer to God. Many years later, he dreamed that the Irish people were asking him to come back to teach them about God, so he became one of the first Christian missionaries to Ireland. He did use the shamrock to teach about the Trinity. He established about 300 churches and was responsible for over 100, 000 converts. He initiated literacy training that was highly successful within only two generations, and – as Cahill’s book points out – the Irish Christians were so dedicated to reading and writing that many works only survived through their protection and diligent hand copying.
As an Irish American who was raised Catholic, I get it. I get the need for a national hero in response to the legacy of English domination and oppression. I get that a people denied knowledge of their heritage will cling to the threads they have and weave them into the most beautiful tapestry they can.
I just think that truth is more beautiful.
There’s nothing wrong with cultural inaccuracies like shamrock shakes, funny hats, or corned beef (my briskets will be roasting over cabbage this afternoon), but those don’t speak to the heart and life of the person himself. What do, though, are loving God, honoring His instructions, and loving even those who harm or persecute us. Surely those are more important ways to honor St. Patrick’s memory and life.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Addendum: I learned something new about Saint Patrick as I was refreshing my memory for this post. Everyone knows he’s the patron saint of his (adopted) Ireland, but he’s also the patron saint of Nigeria. Irish priests from St. Patrick’s Missionary Society were instrumental in spreading Catholicism there in the 20th Century. If only I’d realized while I was there in November that I was around fellow Irishmen…
Also, if you want the quick version, VeggieTales did a great short on it that (underneath all the silliness) is totally accurate. You can watch it on YouTube.