St. Patrick still has a lot to teach us


I have the privilege of serving as pastor of two Catholic parishes named after saints who appeal even to those who do not buy into the Catholic notion of saints: St. Francis of Assisi, attractive to many for his association with animals and peace; and St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

Last week, many people around the world were "Irish for a day" as they observed St. Patrick's Day with the wearing of something green and using green decorations (for more than 40 years devoted revelers have even dyed the Chicago River green for the day!); the pinching of those who weren't wearing green; and maybe a traditional Irish meal of corned beef and cabbage or some other foods and beverages made green just for the day.

Why green?

Perhaps it is because it is one of the colors in the flag of Ireland, from which the now-international celebration of the day was born (it seems to have extended beyond the borders of Ireland in the 1600s or so); or because Ireland is called the "Emerald Isle" for its lush, green landscape; or because green is the color of spring and the shamrock (which is abundant in Ireland).

Why the pinching? This seems to be an entirely American tradition, probably from the 1700s.

Revelers apparently thought that wearing green made one invisible to leprechauns, those fictitious fairy creatures who would pinch anyone they could see (anyone not wearing green), so people would pinch those who were not wearing green to remind them that leprechauns would sneak up and pinch "green-abstainers."

Why corned beef and cabbage?

The cabbage-part is Irish. Originally in Ireland, however, the traditional meal on St. Patrick's Day was cabbage and Irish bacon.

But Irish immigrants to the United States couldn't afford bacon, so they substituted corned beef, an alternative they picked up from their Jewish immigrant neighbors.

Maybe for a day these customs bind a lot of people together in a different, harmless way, which can only be a good thing.

But do they have anything to do with Patrick himself?

Can he mean anything more to us than green buttons and pinches?

Who was the man?

Though details about Patrick's life are shrouded in myth and legend, here are some possibilities.

He was born around the year 389 A.D. in Roman Britain, or Gaul, or Scotland, the son of a Romano-British official, Calpurnius (Patrick's real name was probably "Patricius").

He was captured by raiders when he was about 16 and carried off into slavery to pagan Ireland, where he was a shepherd for six years, after which he escaped to Gaul.

He returned to Britain and studied to become a priest, which he became in about 417 A.D.

About 432 A.D., he was consecrated a bishop and was sent to Ireland, where he traveled the breadth of the island, meeting hostile chieftains and Druids, whom he repeatedly overcame by miraculous means.

Eventually, in no small part because of Patrick's dedication, prayer, and tireless witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, most of Ireland converted to Christianity.

The shamrock?

Legend has it that Patrick planted shamrocks throughout Ireland, and used them to teach the people about the nature of God: as a shamrock has three leaves and is one plant, so God is three divine Persons, yet one God.

Because evil, symbolized by the serpent, cannot stand being in the presence of God (as imaged by the shamrocks), the legend continues, all the snakes left Ireland.

I once received a card for St. Patrick's Day with a picture of a man driving a car filled with snakes in the back seat, with the caption, "St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland."

St. Patrick can stand as an example for us all. His call to conversion can ring loudly in our ears, not necessarily changing from one religion to another, but turning away from sin and evil to goodness and God; his example of constant prayer and witness to Christ even in the face of hostility; and his unwavering trust in God who sustains us.

Here is the "Breastplate" of St. Patrick that we might all wear, in green or not:

"Christ be with me. Christ be before me. Christ be behind me. Christ be in me.

"Christ be beneath me. Christ be above me. Christ be to the right of me. Christ be to the left of me.

"Christ in lying down. Christ in sitting. Christ in rising up.

"Christ be in the heart of everyone who may think of me.

"Christ be in the mouth of everyone who may speak to me.

"Christ be in the every eye that may look at me. Christ be in every ear that may hear me."

The Rev. Pat Kerst is pastor of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Patrick Catholic churches in Walla Walla. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at


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