It is celebrated, world-wide, every year in more countries and continents than any other saint’s feast day. And not just in the Catholic Church, but in the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran Churches as well. Not to mention the throngs of people who revel in black beer and whiskey and lively jigs and reels, but who really have no faith at all. From New York to New Guinea, from Moscow to Montserrat, from Argentina to Australia and even throughout all of Asia, St. Patrick, who died in 461 A.D., impacts our lives today in some way or another.
March 17th is an international call to pause and reflect upon the life of the patron saint of Ireland. But why?
What is it about St. Patrick’s Day that makes the world stop on a dime every year and recognize a saint who we know little about? Whose real history is lost in obscurity and remembered in legendary tales for things which he never accomplished? He didn’t chase the snakes out of Ireland, just as George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree or pitch a dollar over the wide Potomac. And how could this Irish saint’s fame spread so far and wide across the globe that we honor his memory centuries after his death?
Think about it for a moment. There are tens, if not hundreds of millions of people on this planet who either participate in or attend parades dedicated to St. Patrick annually. They plan family get-togethers, feast on ham and bacon and cabbage, scones and tea, Irish soda bread made with baking powder as leavening instead of yeast, colcannon and corned beef and boiled potatoes which I like, as my grandfather did, smothered in mustard.
And we march.
Oh, My Aching Arms
For the past 28 years I’ve helped organize a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. There are hundreds like it across the United States, indeed across the world, except for the fact that I live in suburbia. Ethnic and religious parades, processions, and the like are normally something that occur in cities or small towns, not in fenced-in communities where people crave their privacy and live the American dream behind walls, staking out their quarter-acre of God’s green earth away from the helter-skelter of sirens and buses and smog, traffic and taxis, trolleys and overhead trains.
When we started the parade there was little chance for its success. In the suburbs, one is accustomed to the freedom of the automobile, with little public transportation available it’s really the only way to get around. So, when we closed off a state highway to celebrate St. Patrick, we knew it would meet with opposition, both from the residents of the post-war (WWII, by the way) communities of Levittown and the businesses that depend upon Saturday commerce along the parade route in order to pay the bills. But, we gambled on something else, something we missed – not consciously – when we moved out of the crowded cities and the small towns we hailed from: cultural, religious, and civic pride.
People did complain at first. After all, this wasn’t the Fourth-of-July or Memorial Day. It was and is a religious demonstration for the Glory of God and the honor of St. Patrick, His apostle to the Irish, sent back to the land of his captivity, after six long years of servitude, by the message from an angel that, eventually, changed not just Ireland, but the entire world.
It changed us, too.
After a few years into our parade, resentment miraculously transformed into, not just approval, but to encouragement and ideas. We are a country that still fosters the entrepreneurial spirit of our people, pray God we always will. The businesses came to support us by donating money to our ad book. They even, enthusiastically, participated in our parade, advertising there services, their wares, their fine food and drink. Homeowners began tailgating parties for family and friends, positioning their F-150’s backed up against the highway ready for cooking burgers and dogs, or maybe hosting celebrations with traditional Irish foods as after-parade events. Children were raised in anticipation of “Parade Day.” In short, a tradition was firmly established, transforming fences into bridges. As one police chief told me “you build community by what you do.”
And, marching as I do in the parade every year there’s a peculiar phenomenon that happens which I cannot prevent: it’s waving to the children. You can’t help yourself. The kids along the parade route wave to you and you must wave back. Children love a parade. They anticipate the candy. They love the music. Perhaps, I think sometimes, this might be the only bright moment of their day. So, you must wave back and greet them with a smile and a “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” welcome. But, after several miles of this it’s very taxing on the arms and they begin to ache. A small sacrifice, yet a good one.
The Irish Diaspora
One has to wonder sometimes why God allowed the Irish to suffer under tyranny for so many centuries. To be slaves to the soil that eventually failed them. To cry out to heaven while they watched their children perish from hunger and disease.
Perhaps, and only perhaps, for I am no judge and jury, it is because He has granted us free will, and human beings, such as we are, chose and still choose today to willingly deny our brothers and sisters common decency and respect. Like the Jews, the Irish were forced to disperse and spread their wings like wild geese seeking refuge among the nations of the earth. Searching for freedom, for solace, for peace and a promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We’ve found it here. In America. In the new world. And we never intend to lose it again.
Maybe this is why we march every year. Maybe this is why the first St. Patrick’s Day parade began on American soil in the first place by British soldiers in New York in 1762. Perhaps it was a prefigurement of events yet to come. An augur of the one true God’s benevolent blessings upon our shores.
Let’s not waste it. We are, as a nation, still the Lamp of Liberty. Praise God we always remain so. Sláinte to all of you and yours this fine day, and may Patrick be with us.