Q: I’m as Irish as can be, and I think we should celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with holy joy and glad feasting, even in Lent. Do you agree?
A: Yes! I did this during my years as a graduate student in theology among the “Fighting Irish” at the University of Notre Dame.
Presently, I serve as a faculty resident in St. Patrick Hall at St. John’s University, a residence hall that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. Most of the sophomores who live there are under the legal drinking age, so no green beer for them. But on St. Patrick’s Day my floor has green cookies, green candy and green juice — St. Patrick’s punch, a strawberry-kiwi blend — that is a favorite of leprechauns.
One of my undergraduate students once wrote that “the story of St. Patrick is a remarkable and mysterious one. … It is the story of a national hero and patron. The mention of his name certainly brings emotion to the surface of many an Irish household.”
Hauled off as a slave at age 16 to herd swine in Ireland, Patrick escaped and, with God’s help, returned home to his parents. Later he heard in a dream what he thought to be the voice of the Irish people: “Come help us!” Patrick became a priest, bishop and leader of a mission to Christianize the land where he had been a slave.
As an elementary school lad at Ascension School in north Minneapolis, I was fascinated by the story of St. Patrick in a children’s lives of the saints book in the school library. Ascension Parish was known as an Irish parish in those days, and it had an Irish pastor named Msgr. Patrick William Coates.
His patronal feast day always fell during Lent. Since attending daily Mass was one of my usual resolutions for Lent, I would be at Mass on St. Patrick’s Day. But I was always surprised that Msgr. Coates would be wearing purple Mass vestments inside of green. Green, after all, was the real color of that day, a most appropriate color for the Apostle of the Emerald Isle. Even though I am of Polish descent and not Irish, I always wore a green shamrock to school on St. Patrick’s Day — and I still do.
Ireland must have been very green in the days of St. Patrick, covered as it was by dense forests, and marked by only a few winding cow paths. The Romans, after all, never got there to build their famous roads. Ireland was the “green pastures” where the slave-boy Patrick lay down, and where the bishop Patrick preached the Gospel of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
The life of St. Patrick, reflected in memorable stories about him and in his written reflections on his ministry, reveal two cultures in conflict with each other: the pagan culture of the ancient Celts and the Christian culture that Patrick embodied and preached. The truth is that there are still unchristian areas in our lives — for example, our pride and selfishness — that need the evangelization of Christ.
Patrick’s life is a kingdom-of-God story. He is an outstanding example of what Jesus taught: In the kingdom of God, the least become great, the last are first. Patrick, the shepherd and swineherd who lived in poverty, misery and hunger, became the spiritual shepherd of the Irish people, their father in Christ.
Has anyone ever better understood the words of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”? Patrick knew what it meant to be a shepherd of animals as well as a shepherd of God’s people. Patrick knew that it was the power of God, not human strength, that made him strong as a missionary. As Patrick declared in his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus”: “Most assuredly I believe that I have received from God what I am.”
Patrick learned to trust God completely as he gave generously to others the spiritual gifts that Christ gave him. This makes Patrick a good Lenten saint for us to imitate and celebrate on his feast day, March 17.
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at email@example.com or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.