St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of everything Irish. I understand why this is the case, Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, but I’m also a little uncomfortable with it. My hesitation is caused by the fact that when I look around at the celebrations and imagery of the day all I see is green-ness, shamrocks and leprechauns. The thing that is missing is Patrick himself. I think it’s a bit like the way some Christians complain about the commercialisation of Christmas and Easter. But there is no one who stands up for Patrick.
I know the argument some may use is that when it comes to Christmas and Easter the heart of the matter is to be Jesus centred – it isn’t the case with St. Patrick’s Day. I get it, but it’s missing the point. Others might say, ‘I’m not Catholic. Why should I really care?’ This misses an opportunity. Yes, Patrick played a part in Catholicism, but also in Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. Now, I’m not Irish, nor am I Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican but I still want to see how I can celebrate the legacy of St. Patrick.
So who was he? Patrick wasn’t Irish, but British living in the 5th Century. He was taken to Ireland by kidnappers at the age of 16. After 6 years, he managed to escape, return to England and trained to become a priest. That could have been all there was to Patrick’s life. He could have simply been an ordinary, unknown priest. Instead he began to have visions in which an Irish man begged him to “come and walk among us.” I don’t blame Patrick for not wanting to return to Ireland. For him it was a place of slavery, yet he did because he was convinced that these visions were from God.
Ireland still wasn’t a great place for Patrick. He was imprisoned 12 times, considered an outcast and was constantly in danger. But his work was not in vain. He constantly led people into relationship with God, including kings and chieftains. His missionary work was able to change the culture of the people and his legacy is such that theologian David Bently Hart writes ‘if any man can be said to have converted an entire nation, Patrick would be that person’. Further Nathan Foster cites scholarly claims that Patrick’s work laid the groundwork for future monasteries and the preservation of much of Western Europe’s classical literature.
Some of the stories about Patrick seem mythic. Perhaps the best known is an encounter with druids where he lights a fire for Easter during a fire ban. When the druids try to magic the fire out, they are unable to do so. The druids then cause thick clouds to descend to blanket out the fire but with a single prayer Patrick blows them away. It’s probably not true but it is as remarkable as the story of a single man with nothing going for him being able to change the culture and faith a nation.
I don’t come from a tradition that venerates sainthood, but St. Patrick’s Day is for me. It isn’t just an interesting piece of church history but can impact my life today. This is because it is the story of an ordinary person who followed an extraordinary God. It is the story of someone who was willing to following Jesus no matter the cost. Surely the story of Patrick can teach Christians today what it means to follow God in everyday life? Isn’t this worth celebrating?