Watering Down St. Patrick's Day: An Irishman's Perspective

BELFAST -- This week, millions of Americans will pour green dye into their lite beers and don green badges to honor a quaint bearded Irishman who drove the snakes out of Ireland and taught the mystery of the trinity through the three leaves of a shamrock. Meanwhile, St. Patrick is either having a good laugh or a cry.St. Patrick's legacy does not match the man. He was a humble Christian of meager formal training, full of self-doubt and insecurities. His writings are cluttered with apologies for his style and lack of education.But he was courageous, facing down contemporaries who tried to undermine his authority and preaching the gospel in a very hostile environment.St. Patrick's accomplishments are modest by today's standards: he maintained a church. St. Patrick is remarkable because he worked alone, in a foreign land and among pagans. Those trials will not be reenacted on floats or sung by beer swilling louts because St. Patrick has been hijacked. Put his name in the heap with Christopher Columbus and George Washington: historical figures whose richness and contribution are lost in a two-dimensional greeting card message and heading on the calendar.Keep an eye out for signs of the errant celebrations. Traditionalists in New York blushing when gays demand to march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Guinness inflating prices on an Irish beer brewed in the Caribbean. Kids scrounging for a scrap of green clothing for fear of schoolyard ridicule. It's all in good fun, but it has about as much to do with St. Patrick as colored eggs on Easter. Somewhere under the mound of misplaced symbolism St. Patrick's message has been buried.Nothing about St. Patrick is simple. He was from Britain, not Ireland, but that distinction meant very little in the fifth century when both islands were on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Most of the writings from the time have been lost so historians have relied on St. Patrick's two surviving works to piece together a profile of the man.In his Confession, Patrick describes being kidnapped and held in slavery at 15 by Irish pirates. While working as a shepherd in fierce weather, he found Christian humility and devotion. He would pray one hundred times a day and more, accepting his enslavement as punishment for his faithlessness. After escaping to England and receiving religious training, Patrick returned to the nation of his enslavement to evangelize. His church grew in influence. "I was like a stone that lies in deep mud," Patrick says in his Confession, "He who is mighty placed me on top of the wall."His second surviving writing was a letter excommunicating the English warlord Coroticus after he slaughtered and enslaved Patrick's recently baptized followers. The victims were still wearing their white christening gowns when they were attacked.Patrick sent a messenger to barter for the release of the survivors. The messenger was laughed at so Patrick's only recourse was to excommunicate Coroticus and his soldiers. He had a letter read through the realm warning Christians not to aid Coroticus and his gang who would "devour the people of the Lord as they would eat bread."It was a bold move and Patrick knew he was stretching the limits of his authority by excommunicating a Christian not of his diocese. He did not care. Patrick felt abandoned by the church and only had loyalty to his God and the people who were slaughtered.That uncomplicated profile has been embellished in the centuries since his death. The Irish have taken the greatest liberties and often used St. Patrick as a political pawn.Irish Catholics and Protestants embrace St. Patrick but with suspicion. In Armagh, the Irish ecumenical capital, an Anglican and Catholic version of St. Patrick cathedral stand as peaceful neighbors. The primates of each denomination live in the town and get along quite well.Miles away, Belfast is the only major Irish city not to sponsor a St. Patrick's Day celebration. The city council refused funding for the project because it would be too divisive. Catholic students have the day off school. Protestants do not.Some Catholics have hijacked St. Patrick as a symbol of Irish unity when he would never have known the concept. Protestants recognize something in his evangelism. Some will, with a straight face, say "St. Patrick was a Protestant you know." When he died centuries before the Reformation.Patrick never drove any species of reptile out of Ireland. His lasting legacy was to fortify the church. That's it. He prophesized and evangelized to a pagan people and gave Christianity a strong foothold in Ireland. Now, a little myth about leprechaun's and the Blarney Stone is harmless. That's just legend and lore, but telling lies about St. Patrick is something different. He was a real person with a real contribution. He lived and died and had a message in between. If we do not get that straight we have given up the meaning in his life.Patrick does not appear to have been a killjoy. He probably would not mind festive colored bagels used to commemorate his death. Were he alive, sitting next to you in a bar, he might even countenance an indulgent sip of meade wine. But if he saw a caricature of a cleric prancing about with wooden shoes and a trimmed beard, he might lean over and ask you who that fella thinks he is.

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