I can write this because I'm Irish. Or, more precisely, half-Irish. (My dad's family hails from County Wexford, if you're curious.)
Anyway, here goes: Put St. Patrick back in St. Patrick's Day.
Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't fish around in your closet for your favorite Irish sweater on March 17; or that you shouldn't wear that shamrock tie you use only once a year; or that you shouldn't march in the big parade downtown; or that you shouldn't tuck into corned beef and cabbage with gusto; or that you shouldn't hoist a few green beers with your pals at a local Irish pub; or that you shouldn't scarf down green cupcakes, green milkshakes, or green anything, for that matter. Nor am I telling New York to cancel its parade (or Boston or Philadelphia). Nor am I pleading with Chicago to stop dyeing its river green (which, when you see it in person, is pretty amazing).
You don't have to stop any of that.
But do this: remember why we celebrate St. Patrick's Day. It's because of, well, St. Patrick.
Some of the forgetfulness surrounding the feast of Ireland's patron saint reminds me of the secularization of Christmas. You know: all those ads where people run around in red and green sweaters and decorate trees without daring to breathe the word Christmas. Macy's this year had a memorable Christmas slogan: "A million reasons to believe!" Oh yeah? In what?
With St. Patrick's Day the stakes are decidedly lower: the Son of God versus a guy who supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland. (And he didn't even do that, scholars say. There weren't any to begin with.) But what is lost in both holidays is the same: the astonishing story that gave rise to the religious feast in the first place.
Because St. Patrick was, in short, an amazing guy. He offers Christians important lessons about forgiveness and love. And he offers everyone else some lessons, too.
Patrick was born to high-society parents in Roman-occupied Britain sometime during the late fourth century (probably 387). Around the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish bandits and sent to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. For six years he worked as a shepherd, tending flocks for his owner, a local chieftain and high priest of the Druids. There he learned the Celtic tongue -- perfectly, it is said. And in those difficult conditions, the exiled young man turned inward and discovered God. In his Confessions, Patrick wrote that he "prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn."
At 20, he made a dramatic escape, traveling some 200 miles to the coast and, with the help of some sailors, made his way back to Britain, where he reunited with his family.
After his return, Patrick, now a deeply religious man, decided to study for the priesthood, and spent some many years in a monastery in France, in preparation for his new work. In 432, according to most sources, he was sent to Ireland to serve a local bishop. Upon landing he was met, according to legend, by one of the Irish chieftains, who threatened to kill him. Patrick won him over, and the man became a Christian. When the bishop died, Patrick was appointed successor. He would now serve the flock in a different way.
In his 40 years in Ireland he attracted numerous followers, baptized thousands, and built churches -- for the people who had previously enslaved him. "I never had any reason," he wrote, "except the Gospel and his promises, ever to have returned to that nation from which I had previously escaped with difficulty." He died in 461 -- in Ireland, of course.
Certainly a man worthy knowing about. For the Christian, Patrick poses an important question: would you be willing to serve a place where you had known heartache? And how much is the Gospel worth to you? For everyone, he offers a challenge: can you forgive the people who have wronged you? Could you even love them?
Think about that over your green beer. And happy Feast of St. Patrick.
James Martin, S.J. is the author of My Life with the Saints and a new book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.
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