Like many of the popular holidays around the world, St. Patrick’s Day is yet another classic example of a deeply Catholic holiday gone mainstream. And also like those other holidays, the day’s growth in popularity has, in many ways, robbed it of its richness.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating corned beef and drinking green beer to mark the occasion, it’s very likely that most of those partaking in the merriment haven’t a clue who St. Patrick is. And as such, St. Patrick’s Day becomes a great (one might even say lucky) opportunity for us Catholics to enlighten (and enliven) our fellow celebrants — even if we here in the Archdiocese of Denver can’t eat any corned beef this year.
Let’s start with the basics. St. Patrick is best known as the patron saint of Ireland. He lived during the fifth century and is largely responsible for the conversion of the nation of Ireland to Christianity. He was a bishop in the later years of his life, but his story starts elsewhere. Contrary to popular belief, Patrick was not actually a proper Irishman; he was originally from Britain, part of the Roman Empire at the time. He was taken captive by Irish pirates at the age of 16 and brought to Ireland as a slave. During his captivity, he converted to Christianity. After six years of enslavement, he managed to escape back to his native land, where he became a cleric.
The Lord clearly planted a seed in Patrick’s heart while he was a slave in Ireland, because he returned to Ireland after he was ordained to preach the Gospel to the Irish and help those who were enslaved by the pagans. Through St. Patrick’s witness and evangelization efforts, Ireland slowly turned from its pagan ways and became a predominantly Christian nation. With only the Lord at his side, Patrick almost single-handedly converted Ireland. Irish tradition holds that he died on March 17, 461; hence, St. Patrick’s Day.
Over the years, the day has become more commercialized and therefore removed from its history, but the reality is that its roots run deep in the Christian heritage of Ireland and would not be worth commemorating otherwise.
St. Patrick came to be known as a fierce and courageous advocate for Christ. In the face of the paganism that was rampant in Ireland, he boldly proclaimed Christ, inspiring the Irish people to turn from their false gods and to the one true God. His unwavering faith became the basis for countless legends about him; some well-known, and others not so much.
One of the best known of these is his association with the shamrock. Legend has it that St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock as a means to educate the Irish people about the concept of the Holy Trinity. This may or may not be true, but it certainly makes for an interesting conversation starter.
Another legend has it that St. Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland, echoing Moses and Aaron’s encounter with the sorcerers in the Book of Exodus, when Aaron’s staff transformed into a bigger snake than the sorcerer’s staffs and consumed them. Still another recounts St. Patrick spending 40 days atop a well-known mountain in Ireland where he fasted and endured various trials, calling to mind Moses’ fast on Mount Sinai as well as Jesus’ 40 days spent in the desert. This mountain is now called Croagh Patrick. While these tales also may be a bit embellished, they prove the Irish people’s reverence for the saint.
Another popular spiritual tradition that’s associated with St. Patrick is the Prayer or Hymn of St. Patrick, also known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. As he legend goes, on May 1, 433, St. Patrick sung this hymn as protection from King Leary and his soldiers after following a prompt by the Holy Spirit to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Easter by lighting a bonfire on the same day as the pagan festival of Beltrane. The flame’s lighting indicated the beginning of the festival and was to be lit only by the king. As the king and his soldier’s approached St. Patrick, he began to sing the hymn, which evokes praise to God and the Holy Trinity and invokes the protection of Christ through these words, which are likely the best known of the prayer:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
As St. Patrick sung these words, a herd of deer blocked the soldiers’ approach, which allowed St. Patrick and his followers to escape. As a result of this purported miracle, St. Patrick gained more followers, some even being druid priests of the pagan religion who converted to Christianity.
Symbols and Traditions
The lore and legends of St. Patrick certainly add to the allure of the holiday. However, some of the symbols and traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day have become more synonymous with the whole of Irish culture than with St. Patrick himself.
For instance, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day is a way for those with Irish heritage to proudly share their roots. Interestingly, it was the color blue that was originally associated with St. Patrick, but somewhere along the way, green became the go-to. This likely has to do with the aforementioned shamrock, green in color, which has come to be a symbol of Irish pride more than a representation of the trinity.
As for corned beef and cabbage, one is more traditionally Irish than the other. Cabbage has long been an Irish food, but corned beef only began to be associated with St. Patrick’s Day at the turn of the 20th century. Irish immigrants living on New York City’s Lower East Side substituted corned beef for their traditional dish of Irish bacon to save money. They learned about the cheaper alternative from their Jewish neighbors.
Speaking of corned beef, those of us in the Archdiocese of Denver won’t be able to partake this year due to the Lenten obligation of abstaining from meat on Fridays (this is not the case everywhere, however). While the corned beef will have to wait until Saturday, that doesn’t mean that we can’t indulge in an Irish-themed feast of our own on St. Patrick’s Day.
For starters, there is the most important feast of the Eucharist that we can and should partake in on this day as a way to honor St. Patrick and his fidelity to Christ. Make a point to go to Mass and pray with the prayer that St. Patrick gave us.
Beyond that, there are many meatless and “green” Irish dishes to make and enjoy with your family and friends that are sure to keep you from turning, well, green. Below are a few links with ideas.
St. Patrick, pray for us!