Today is St. Patrick’s Day.
Green beer, music by The Chieftains or by Dropkick Murphy’s, and corned beef and cabbage are some of what characterizes this day to many people. I would submit that while all of the things I mentioned are okay in themselves (I will admit that I had my annual dose of corned beef and cabbage today at the firehouse, and it was really good…) it probably, in real terms, doesn’t jibe with the way a day that is supposed to be a religious feast day is normally celebrated. But it doesn’t matter because it’s been this way for many years and, I expect, will continue long after I have left the planet.
That said, what does anyone really know about St. Patrick, and does any of this really go towards celebrating a day honoring him? There is not a great deal of information about Patrick and his life and ministry, and much of the timeline of his life is an approximation. But there is enough information to at least draw a sketch of him.
According to any of the hagiographical accounts that exist today, early in his life Patrick was a slave. This was near the end of the fourth century, where he was abducted by Irish pirates as a young man during a raid on his home (he was thought to be approximately 16 years of age) from the area of Scotland where his family lived. He was made to work as a shepherd during the six years he was held captive.
At age 22 he escaped from the landowner who held him, and he walked nearly 200 miles to the Irish coastline. Somehow he was able to find passage on a ship returning to Britain, where he was able to return to Scotland and his family.
Not long after his return, it’s said that Patrick had a vision of an angel who told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. And it was soon after that when he began his studies for the priesthood in what was then Gaul. Once he was ordained, he was sent back to Ireland to minister to what at the time was a small community of Christians. He also had been given the responsibility of evangelizing the Picts (a Pagan sect) and Druids who were prevalent in Ireland at that time.
During his life he wrote Confessio – this was later known as The Confession of Saint Patrick, and it a short but rather detailed account of his life and ministry among the Irish.
There are three myths that I know of (and there are probably more) associated with Patrick. One is that he banished the snakes from Ireland. Considering that snakes didn’t exist on Ireland after the glaciers, this myth is easy to debunk. The other is that he used the shamrock as a tool to teach about the existence of the Trinity. A little more difficult to disprove, perhaps, but scholars generally agree that this is also a myth.
Of all the myths about Patrick, perhaps the one that is most well-known is that he “converted thousands by himself.” Historically, it is known that the Christianization of Ireland was not fully realized until well into the seventh century. And it was done by many who were likely the spiritual descendants of Patrick, but certainly not by Patrick himself.
Regardless of the myths, what makes Patrick heroic is that he was, among other things, true to himself and his beliefs. He was simple, sincere, and had a great concern and regard for the people he ministered to. He didn’t care what social strata people were from; he cared about them regardless of their background, and his preaching reflected this. It also made him a target for those ready to imprison or kill him for his Christian faith.
Patrick died around the year 461. Although he was never canonized, he is regarded as a saint and is venerated by Catholics, Orthodox believers, Anglicans, and Lutherans alike. Today, March 17, is his feast day.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.