It’s almost spring. The snow is gone, the skies are blues, the rivers are green. Time to celebrate the season with everybody’s favorite saint: that small guy with the lucky charms who lets you pinch your clueless friends.
Wait a minute. I feel like I’m confused. Who are we talking about, again?
St. Patrick, of course, but the story of his life seems to have been so editorialized that it doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine him as the green-hatted leprechaun of Saturday morning commercials. For the sake of history, let’s review what we know about him, besides all the clover stories.
Let’s go back to a simpler time: the turn of the 5th century AD. When he was fourteen or sixteen years old, Patrick did not sit around and play video games like some young men we knew. He was captured by pirates and sold as a slave from his native Britain to the island of Ireland(which, believe it or not, will not be the plot of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, though it totally should be). After six years, he escaped and returned home, choosing to become a Catholic priest before going back to Ireland to convert its people.
In other words, he was a missionary, and a good one at that. To this day, most of the island of Ireland remains loyal to Catholicism, not to the nearby rule of the Anglican church.
From there, most of us are familiar with his legendary exploits: frolicking in clover fields, banishing all snakes, turning sticks into trees, etc. And his influence still stands today: all hail the seasonal Shamrock Shake.
But history is complicated, and St. Patrick is no exception.
You see, no one is really sure who St. Patrick was. We don’t even know if that was his real name. In fact, evidence also points us to the idea that who we know as St. Patrick could be a combination of early church fathers from Ireland.
Which brings up an interesting point. Modern Christianity, by and large, operates under the assumption that the people we learn about in Bible class and Sunday school are real, living people with real, living faith. There is very little confusion about their names and their actions: even figures like that “most excellent Theophilus” have at least attempted explanations.
Sainthood is another story. So many of their histories are passed down through stories that are more like legends than factually-based accounts. Historians have enough trouble trying to piece together what really happened in those times without having to verify the miraculous claims of early Christian figures.
Now, with St. Patrick, at least we have some writings that seem to prove his, or at least someone’s, existence. It almost certainly was not the same as what we, as a culture, have regarded it to be, but that doesn’t make it have any less of an impact.
Still, it strikes me as strange that even 1500 years after his death, we celebrate his life with irreverent behavior and color-coded wardrobes. I think that if St. Patrick could see what we do in his name, he’d be very confused. Almost as confused about that whole snake thing.
All this to say that these days, St. Patrick isn’t much different from Santa Claus in terms of his editorialized past. Next time you see a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” shirt, remember that he was British.
But always keep in mind: some things do make better stories(and yes, I’m still talking about the snakes).
Happy St. Patty’s Day.