Sixteen centuries ago, Saint Patrick devoted his days to spreading the Christian faith in Ireland. Deeply prayerful, he wrote of how his prayer life increased his love and fear of God. An ascetic, he stayed out in the forests and on the mountain — in rain, snow and icy coldness. But the elements did not bother him because as he prayed, he felt the Spirit burning inside of him.
How did commemoration of the death of this great evangelizer evolve into a boisterous, secular celebration bereft of reference to the Christian faith that St. Patrick so fervently embraced? As people of faith called by Pope Francis to go out to the peripheries to share the Good News, shouldn’t we make a point of putting Christ and the saint back into St. Patrick’s Day?
These questions aren’t meant to rain on our St. Patrick’s Day parades or parties, or to scold Chicago for coloring its river green. These questions are meant to provoke thinking about our experiences as Christians living in a secular world in need of conversion, not unlike the Ireland in which St. Patrick lived. Sadly, the Ireland of today — like many places in Europe and the U.S. — is witnessing the emptying of the churches. “America” magazine, in a March 5 article titled “The Future of Catholic Ireland,” examines why Irish Catholics are leaving the church. “We need a church that is relevant more than it is dominant,” observes Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in James Keane’s article.
Irish settlers, many of them indentured servants in the American colonies, “brought the Irish tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day to America,” the History website states. Irish soldiers serving in the British army held the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City in 1762 to honor Ireland’s patron saint. With the flood of Irish immigrants in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, the celebration spread.
But in the intervening years, St. Patrick’s Day has lost is religious roots.Kudos, then, to the Saint Patrick Society of the Quad Cities, which begins festivities on Saturday with Mass at 10 a.m. at St. Mary Church in Rock Island, Ill. Then, the nation’s only bi-state St. Patrick’s Day parade kicks off at 11:30 a.m. near the church. Mass is celebrated every year before the parade, but that detail sometimes gets lost in the publicity. Mass is essential to help bring Christ back into St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
We need to follow St. Patrick’s example, putting the emphasis on the joy and hope that flows from being a Christian. St. Patrick engaged the Irish culture. He knew their language and customs, having lived as a slave in captivity in Ireland as a teen. Instead of turning his back on the place where he was oppressed, he returned to bring the joy of the Gospel. The people embraced Christianity because St. Patrick loved God and spoke of God’s gift of redemption, in their native tongue.
St. Patrick faced resistance by nonbelievers who feared for the loss of their way of life. But like the saint, we need to step out of our comfort zone to engage those who see no need to be part of the church. This summer, Bishop Thomas Zinkula will lead a group of bicyclists, the “Pedaling to the Peripheries” team, on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). He will simply be another bicycle rider, like everyone else. He’s coming to them, open to answering questions and to sharing the joy of Christ.
This St. Patrick’s Day, plan to attend Mass before participating in a St. Patrick’s Day parade or party. If you’re wearing a costume with the rest of the leprechauns in the parade, consider dressing like St. Patrick. Carry a banner bearing some of the stirring words from the prayer “St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate:”
“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left … Christ in the heart of everyone who speaks to me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me….”
Feel the Spirit burning inside of you.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor