Leprechauns, green beer, parties, Irish heritage. Hard to tell that St. Patrick’s Day started as a religious remembrance of one of Christendom’s most famous missionaries outside of the apostle Paul. So here is a little history.
Partick’s early days aren’t well known. His father and grandfather were both members of the clergy. Possibly a wealthy family, but surprising to many, they were British. Yes, the patron saint of Ireland isn’t Irish (reminds me of famed British writer C.S. Lewis who was, well, Irish). Nonetheless, the teenage Patrick was kidnapped and became a slave in Ireland for six years. It is there his faith grew, and he would later write that God told him when to flee to the coast, where he escaped back to Britain. There, he would receive another call to return to the land of his captors to minister to them. After over a decade of training in the priesthood, he did just that.
He wasn’t the first to introduce Christianity to Ireland, but is often credited with influencing its explosive growth there. As with most missionaries, it wasn’t easy. His writings attest to being detained and subject of wrath from local rulers. Mostly likely not the “fire and brimstone” variety of preacher, he would incorporate — or subvert — some of the old Celtic symbols, when possible, into his mission. He is said to have superimposed the Christian cross onto the Celtic one, making it a recognized Christian symbol to this day. The popular usage of bonfires by the Celts was maintained for Easter celebrations.
Many other legends have grown around Patrick, and quite probably, they are simply legends. Such as his use of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity or that he banished all snakes from Ireland. Even though he’s often referred to as a “saint,” he was never officially canonized by the Roman Catholic church, but only declared a saint by popular opinion. Still, the day is observed officially by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and some others. In the long centuries since the Reformation, many churches have abandoned such “feast” or observance days, perhaps due to some overstated fear of appearing too much like another denomination or of remembering someone in their history.
I think it is important to remember our past. Out of billions who have come and gone, when one has been remembered by history, one should be encouraged to find out why. Here’s a man who went back to the land of his enslavement, far from home and with little support, to teach and witness. I know, many look at those who want to share what they believe as some sort of oppression. Those are often the same people who claim to believe in the freedom of speech. Those debates aside, he also worked among the slave and poor, one of the first to oppose the kind of slavery he himself had experienced.
Yes, this Monday can be used to remember Irish heritage and its influence on the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you are Irish (if you aren’t, don’t you have your own day?). St. Patrick’s Day has, perhaps, always been a bit less about its namesake than it should. So take a minute and think about why this man is still known so many centuries later. History remembers only those terrible and those great. Patrick was the latter and maybe the church can look to those like him in their past as it charts its future. All, though, should ask this:
What does it take, whether you are remembered or not, to leave a similar mark upon the world?