He’s obscured by antiquity, veiled in mystery and myth, celebrated with callousness and revelry which he would never have condoned. Every year in March, he is identified with the Irish race although his own birthplace is a debatable question. He could have been from Britain, Wales, Scotland, even France. When I was growing up, St. Patrick’s Day in America was like New Year’s Eve – an amateur night for inexperienced drinkers. That never felt right to me even as I imbibed in more than my share of black brew and aged whiskey, probably more than anyone else I know.
Yet, St. Patrick is as dear to me now as he was in my youth. Through the years he has been with me as protector and patron, mentor and guide, friend and benefactor; and, at one point in my life I chose him, and, I firmly believe, he chose me.
When I was eleven-years-old I had a crucial decision to make. It was the year I was to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. I had to choose a name. This obligation I took personally, because it would become part of me, it would define who I was. Unlike, after I was consecrated at the Baptismal fount, I would be doing the choosing concerning my very own name.
When Adam named the beasts and the birds, when he gave a name to every living thing, he took ownership and became a steward to everything he gave a name to. When you give yourself a name don’t you do the same thing? I am John or Mary or Joseph or Michael, ergo I must conform myself, in some way, to the name I have just confirmed myself to be. It is now a part of me. Of me, you see – of who I really am, or at least who I hope to be.
Back when I was growing up, the church was still in many ways pre-Conciliar (although the church can never, ever, really be pre or post anything). But back then I was taught I’d become – if I took the onus of the Sacrament of Confirmation seriously and if I dedicated my heart and united my free will to that of the Holy Spirit – a soldier.
And I was ready for it.
Dedicate my heart? Unite my will against the common enemy? Become a soldier in the fight against evil? Are you kidding? Of course I would. Where do I sign up?
Perhaps, it was the age I was born into, or the tender, naive and gullible age of eleven that instilled in my mind a sense of purpose and promise. I wanted to be a soldier. I even prayed to be so. I sought knighthood like any boy my age would, blissfully falling asleep at night reading tales of crusaders and castles, virtuous maidens and incorruptible quests, shining armor and faithful steeds. It is, after all, the stuff that has captured the imagination and the longings of any boy who sought glory in battling evil and becoming a champion of all things good and righteous and holy.
Whether that could be accomplished in the adolescent mind by becoming a cowboy and imitating John Wayne, sabre unsheathed and leading a cavalry charge, or storming the ramparts of the enemy to save whatever day needing saving, or bravely boarding a pirate ship to rescue the girl and recapture the treasure chest from the hands of unspeakable barbarians, the results were pretty much the same: a delicious and satisfying good night’s sleep.
But, on one particular evening I just couldn’t sleep at all. In fact, I was awake all night. I had whittled down my selection for a Confirmation name. The candidates were all worthy and holy and, well, fit. You know, like when a young girl, in days gone by, who would perpetually scribble her name beside the name of a beau she was dreaming of marrying just to see if it felt right or looked right or sounded right, so it would be right. I wanted my Confirmation name to be in harmony with my Baptismal names in case I ever ran for president or something, just so it would look good in the newspapers. This was a very heavy consideration. Or at least it used to be.
I know, times have changed, ostensibly for the better.
When I was the Director of Religious Education at my parish, and encouraged my students studying for Confirmation to really give pause and purpose to the name they would select for the very reasons I did, people looked at me cross-eyed. First of all it was a challenge just to insist that they choose the name of a saint let alone research that saint’s name and vindicate their choice with some kind of conviction, something akin to admiration. This was the only time I instructed my students to defy their parent’s wishes (and I paid the price, believe me). But, it’s that important for the child, now really a young adult, to take possession and claim this choice as their very own. If they didn’t it would not be meaningful – because they need to own this choice.
As I tossed and turned in my bed on the night of my decision, and thought of endless possibilities as to the saint I would choose, something strange occurred to me. When I had, finally, truly settled on St. Patrick because his story – his history – was appealing to me, when, there simply was no other choice in my heart, I felt relieved. Here was a lad who, as legend had it, was kidnapped. Wow! Kidnapped! How cool was that? But, the strange thing that happened was a thought in the back of my mind that maybe he didn’t want me to be named after him. After all, who was I? I was nothing, nobody, just a little kid. St. Patrick was the Patron Saint of Ireland. They had parades in his name all over the country, all over the world. Who was I to choose him? What if he didn’t even like me?
I had a biography of St. Patrick that I had gotten from the school library and was clutching it in my arms as I wrestled with my pillow and begged for just an hour of needed rest. Slowly, after something like eternity passed, I fell asleep. In my dream, I was caught up in Patrick’s abduction. I felt myself drifting on a boat with another boy my age. We were being taken to a foreign land far from our family and friends. This boy was singing. He reminded me of David with a harp singing with joy the praises of the Lord. And that’s all I remember about the dream.
When I awoke the next morning, I knew in my heart Patrick was to be my new name. And it fit. Maybe he didn’t mind me taking on the name after all. Maybe he actually said it would be okay. Ever since that time, St. Patrick and I have been kindred spirits. For some reason, I started two parades in his honor and for the glory of God. For some reason I named my second child after him. For some reason, when I was in Rome and was able to procure a relic of any saint I wished (except Apostles), the first words to come out of my mouth were “do you have any relics of St. Patrick?”
They did and I have it now, sitting right in front of my laptop as I write these words. Sometimes when you really want it, when its right, when it’s meant to be, you can connect to what ordinarily seems impossible. Patrick and I are kind of like that. Through the Sacrament of Confirmation we were connected, on a boat in a dream we were kidnapped and understood each other, forever we will be friends because he chose me when I chose him.
Sometimes, things can be that simple. Sometimes, the choices you make in your youth are really that important even though you may not think so at that time.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
By the way, not to brag or anything, but the full name is George John Patrick Galloway.