Michelle Martin

Luck of the Irish

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Be honest with yourself. How much do you know about St. Patrick?

I ask because we in Chicago celebrate Patrick like he is one of our own, with one of the biggest parades of the year, dyeing the Chicago River green and, of course, green beer. Across the United States this year, some Catholics petitioned their bishops to lift the obligation to abstain from meat on St. Patrick’s Day, which fell on a Friday of Lent, apparently because they wanted their corned beef — an Irish-American, not Irish, dish.

Maybe that makes sense. St. Patrick himself, while one of the patron saints of Ireland, was not Irish; he was born in Britain, then under Roman control, late in the fourth century and captured by Irish pirates when he was a teenager. He was enslaved in Ireland for several years, herding and tending sheep, before escaping and making his way back to Britain and his family.

He had a vision in which he was called back to Ireland, so after being ordained a priest and then a bishop, he returned in 433, and spent the next decades converting the people of Ireland — mostly druids and pagans — and building churches. He is known for using shamrocks to explain the Trinity.

He died in Ireland in 461.

What’s missing from the story? There are no leprechauns, rainbows or pots of gold, to start. It’s unlikely that St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland for the simple reason that there is no evidence that snakes were ever native to the island.

It’s also highly unlikely that St. Patrick ever would have set himself up in opposition to St. Joseph, Jesus’ earthly foster father, as he sometimes appeared to be when I was a child and my Catholic grammar school offered an out-of-uniform day the third week of March for students wearing red in honor of St. Joseph or green in honor of St. Patrick. I don’t think anyone ever said we couldn’t wear both, but no one did. It was more of a competition between students who claimed Irish heritage and students who claimed Italian heritage.

Now, most people who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day would say that everyone can be a little Irish on March 17, and no one needs to be Italian to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day, with its tradition of meatless meals and collections for the poor. I’m the sure the saints in heaven find any apparent conflict humorous, or maybe just confusing.

All of them would probably agree that instead of focusing on parades and politics, we Christians would be better focusing on the Breastplate of St. Patrick, a prayer traditionally attributed to the saint:

Christ be with me, Christ within me

Christ behind me, Christ before me

Christ beside me, Christ to win me

Christ to comfort me and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger

Christ in hearts of all that love me

Christ in mouth of friend or stranger.


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