Most everything you know about St. Patrick is wrong. He wasn't Irish and he wasn't named Patrick. He wasn't the first Christian missionary to visit Ireland and when he did arrive, there were no snakes for him to banish.
And yes, he's been the Patron Saint of Nigeria since 1961.
When it comes to the questions -- and answers -- of Patron Sainthood, Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers have written the book. It's called Saints Preserve Us! (Random House, 1993) and it's a very droll guide to this strange side of the Catholic Church, the religion into which I was born and whose scars and blessings I carry to this very day.
Patron saints, the authors tell us, are "like enzymes, gravity or the CIA -- invisible, yes, but eternally present, and hard at work on your behalf, whether or not you know it -- or like it."
Name an affliction and rest assured, Someone Up There is rooting for you. Petronilla got you feeling down? Calling Saint Ague. She's standing by, unless she gets too busy looking out for France, which she's the patroness of.
Your sciatica been kicking up lately? Saint Dometius of Persia is just a prayer away. Showing a little gravel in your urine? Saint Drogo's at your service.
Besides standing up for the physically afflicted, there's a patron saint for most every job you've ever held, dreamed of or read about in a George R.R. Martin novel.
In that vein and in light of their putative help over the years, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank saints John Berchmans (p.s. of altar boys), George (Boy Scouts), Gabriel Possenti (students), draft dodgers (Besse), Saint Dismas (criminals -- don't ask) and Francis de Sales (journalists, writers and editors, a gig only a true saint could possibly handle.).
Some patron saints are themselves suffering the slings and arrows of a changing earthly economy. The ranks of the under- or non-employed include saints Lambert (truss makers) Catherine of Alexandria (rope makers) Florian (soap boilers) Agatha (wet nurses) Venerius (lighthouse keepers) Athanasius the Fuller ( uh, fullers) and Lucy (who besides looking out for the world's gondoliers, also has the backs of its lamplighters.).
You'd think that being named a patron saint (a job whose earthly requirements have often entailed disemboweling, decapitation and being roasting while cracking bad jokes) would guarantee a saint's lasting fame, at least within the Church. Tell that to Aldegund, Ivo of Kermartin, Fridolin, Odo of Cluny, Hormisdas, Gomer, Notburga and Cunegund, all of them saints no spell-check program ever wants to see again.
A favorite saint of mine was known in her day as Saint Christina the Astounding, and with good reason. Believed dead at the age of 15 following a cataleptic fit, Christina flew out of her coffin and took refuge in the church rafters. Persuaded to come down, she explained her behavior by saying she'd been offended by the garlicky breath of the congregation. If that's not astounding enough on its face, know this: she's also the patroness of psychiatrists.
I'll leave it to the authors of Saints Preserve Us! to provide a fitting summary of this vast and, well, astonishing topic: they wonder if levitating monks, visionary spinsters and meek miracle workers might not have their contemporary equivalents in the moralistic, formulaic, happy-ending stories we've all grown up watching on television ("The Flying Nun," anyone?). Which is to say that maybe the human need for story transcends everything in this earthly realm, be it doctrinal calculation, heavenly inspiration, nationalistic exhibition or commercial realization.
You'll see all those qualities on display come March 17, whether you find yourself in a church, a parade, a supermarket or in your cups. And if an over-indulgence in the latter you're suffering from the next day, you can always say a little prayer to Bibiana, patron saint of hangovers.