“They called out as it were with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’ This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for.” – The Confession of Saint Patrick
The basic story of Saint Patrick is known universally. He brought the Catholic faith to an island of pagans and encircled them in that faith. He led the Irish from darkness to the light of Christ and changed their world, seemingly forever. That rock-ribbed faith he imparted to them became perhaps their chief characteristic for 1,600 years.
Growing up as an American of (partial) Irish heritage, St. Patrick’s Day was a day to “wear the green,” find little gifts from leprechauns, and play Irish music. Later my friends and I placed ourselves at Irish pubs and filled the night with stout, whisky, and merriment. It was always amplified by the fact that this was in Lent, and so we wanted to make sure we really got our money’s worth on a feast day like this. We were good Catholic boys, so it never got too, too far—but we did have our fun, no question.
The American version of St. Patrick’s Day was foreign to Ireland until the last few decades. In America, the first recorded observance of the holy day was in St. Augustine, Florida in 1600. Ireland caught up 375 years later with the first recorded parade in 1975. In early American history, the Irish were not welcome by various groups of powerful people in this country, particularly at the time of The Great Famine in the 1840s and the ensuing waves of Irish immigrants. The Irish banded together and helped each other make a go of it here out of necessity. Their resulting success is as much a part of the America we know as anything else. They became us. Yet their hearts were still in their fatherland, and St. Patrick’s Day allowed them to celebrate the land of their birth and their growing accomplishments in a new land that cut them no slack. They reveled in their valiant efforts to simply survive as an oppressed class in their native and adopted home, to celebrate their resilient culture, and to keep alive the vibrant faith of their fathers through the example of St. Patrick himself.
Now we see an Ireland’s glorious Christian birthright abandoned. As a friend put it, we are enjoying the fragrance of a rose which has been uprooted. How they got there might explain why they got there, and that shouldn’t be set aside. We have witnessed the dismantling of Catholic Ireland and the evisceration of any moral authority the clergy once enjoyed. We watched in disbelief as this nation of once-pious people aggressively passed laws considered absurd 10 years ago. St. Patrick has left the building—or perhaps he was shown the door. To most, his remaining legacy is at the bottom of a pint glass. There will still be St. Patrick’s Day parades, and green beer will certainly flow, but there is no evidence that people who mourn for Catholic Ireland have advocated a different approach to this day.
As it says in Romans 13, “The night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;” The faithful must reevaluate how we approach St. Patrick’s Day. We must renew and reinvigorate this feast day to not only celebrate the rich traditions of the Irish, but also to call ourselves to the example set by St. Patrick.
It’s likely inappropriate to apply further fasting and abstinence on a feast day. But I also don’t want to smile and make merry now. The unraveling of St. Patrick’s great accomplishments leaves Ireland more aligned with the paganism he worked tirelessly to bring them out of. His day is now an empty practice, divorced entirely from its origin. What to do? I think from now on I will do what I never did, but should have—attend Mass and commit to some practice that will soberly (pun intended) consider the proud Irish history and what their most cherished patron’s lessons should teach us.
Origin stories are popular these days. Let’s remind ourselves of the origin story of this day and commit ourselves to aiding the reconversion of Ireland from top to bottom. It’s still a feast, and we ought to celebrate, but let’s consider what made it a feast day, and ask St. Patrick to “come back to us.”
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