How will you spend St. Patrick’s Day? For many of us who trace our
roots to Ireland, March 17 has traditionally been a night of partying.
My fondest memories of the holiday are from college. The family of a
roommate owned the restaurant that threw the best St. Paddy’s Day party
in the state of Indiana. The day was devoted to indulging ourselves in
meat grinders, cursing or praising the results of the NCAA Tournament,
and consuming as much green beer as we could handle.
It was great fun, although the next morning was none too pretty. But
was it in the spirit of what the holiday intends to convey? Who was the
real St. Patrick? Most people can quickly tell you he was the saint
responsible for bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle–but even
this great truth has been shrouded in stories about his driving
serpents out of the country, or using the shamrock to teach about the
Holy Trinity. The life of Patrick was considerably different.
The real Patrick was actually named Succat, and he grew up in
Wales, as the son of a magistrate. He enjoyed an easy life until Celtic
warriors swept up from the sea captured their villa. Succat was one
of many who were sold into slavery. He was shipped to a chieftan in
Ireland, where a cruel master beat him, cursed him and fed him with the
animals. But it was here that he found what his former luxury had
denied him—the true God. Through prayer he came to pledge his life to
the Almighty. One night, he dozed upon the hillside and a voice told
him he would soon go to his own country. Soon the same voice directed
him to leave—“Behold, your ship is ready.”
Succat would attempt to return to his homeland, but in the period
of his slavery he had come to a great love of the Irish people. He
followed the call of the Lord to the Emerald Isle and began the long
work of evangelizing the country. He confronted an organized pagan
culture, and converted it to the Gospel. His entourage included not
only fellow clerics, but cooks, tradesmen and other artisans. Today one
of the great symbols of his impact is “Croagh Patrick”, a mountain in
County Mayo. Succat spent his Lents at the top of this mountain.
Today, pilgrims make the climb to a little chapel that awaits them at
the top. I had the chance to make this climb last summer—it's a small
microcosm of what the spiritual journey can seem like—it’s rocky, the
footing is difficult, and it seems like the climb will never end. Then,
all of a sudden, the chapel in sight and the end arrives. In ways more
profound then this climb, Succat–by this time known as the missionary Patrick–made it to the end, and through his
work he transformed the world.
Lest one think this last statement is overly grandiose, consider the
impact Ireland has had on human history. During the Dark Ages it was
the Irish monks who preserved Western culture, as documented in the
book How The Irish Saved Civilization. The
Irish people would soon fan out across the world, particularly to the
United States. The country’s rich faith heritage did not prevent her
from suffering greatly, and the Potato Famine sent thousands upon
thousands of emigrants fleeing to the shores of Boston & New York.
The Irish landed in America bedraggled and poor, but they had their
Faith. And they made their mark on American culture. This past January,
I was privileged to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, a
magnificent edifice built by the pennies of Irish immigrants, and a
monument to their fortitude. Irish Catholics built great
universities–Notre Dame is the centerpiece, and their priests were
influential in developing scores of other colleges. Closer to home, my
grandmother landed in Boston over eighty years ago, before moving
westward. Three years ago I visited that great city, and as I sat in
beautiful Holy Cross Cathedral gazing upon the stained glass windows, I
wondered if grandma had ever set foot in here. Today, scores of Irish
descendants in this country can contemplate the same thing.
What if Succat had not responded to God’s call to go to Ireland
fifteen centuries ago? The monuments we would be visiting would have
been built to the Celtics—and I don’t mean the pro basketball franchise
that resides in Boston. I mean the organized pagan culture the missonary Patrick
had to convert. The Celts were a warlike people and it was common
practice to display the head of their victims as trophies. If you’re of
Irish heritage and are glad we don’t live that way anymore, St.
Patrick’s Day should have special significance for you.
Reducing St. Patrick’s Day to a night of merriment and drinking is
simply a one-day embodiment of a deeper challenge facing the American
Irish of today. Our ancestors faced material hardship, but we face
something more dangerous—the loss of our collective Catholic soul
through indifference to the Faith that Patrick bequeathed to us. The
most recent contribution the Irish have made to this country is the
nomination of a pro-abortion extremist, in John F. Kerry for the
presidency. As sure as Patrick once did, we face a highly organized
pagan culture of death–and too many of the most prominent American
Irish are on the wrong side. This is the end fruit of a culture that
has accepted the recreational parts of the Irish heritage, but left the
Faith behind. A secularized St. Patrick's Day is a logical reflection
It’s not that the way we celebrate the day is wrong—the Irish have
always been renowned for their ability to have a good time. Indeed, one
of the great contributions the immigrants made to the culture of Boston
was bringing a light-hearted pious sense to a Protestant religious
community that was all too stern and serious. But the Irish of those
days did not separate fun from fidelity. So if you celebrate St.
Patrick’s Day the way I once did back in Indiana, let’s do just a few
things a little different. If you’re enjoying a green beer, why not
touch the crucifix or religious medal around your neck and give a quick
toast to the man that made it possible? If you’re in a bar watching
Villanova, Gonzaga or any of the other Catholic colleges that will be
playing in the NCAA Tournament, keep in mind how many faithful Irish
priests made those institutions what they are. And give thanks to the
Irish saint that got the ball rolling.
Above all, consider whether you’re the one God is calling to help
bring the American Irish back to their roots in Christ at the dawn of
the 21st century. Why not you? Stranger things have
happened—after all, the fate of the Irish world once rested on the
shoulders of a sixteen-year old slave from Wales.