Saint Patrick was not Irish. He did not single-handedly convert all the Irish people to Christianity, nor did he drive snakes out of Ireland. He was not a bishop and probably was not a monk, although he supported the establishment of monasteries in Ireland. His day was not a major celebration in Ireland until recently, when the customs of Irish communities in other parts of the world were carried back to Ireland.
Patrick was British, born and raised in Britain in the years after the Roman Empire had withdrawn its forces from the island to deal with matters closer to home. When he was a boy, Patrick was captured by pirates and sold as a slave to an Irish master, who kept Patrick for six years. After that time Patrick escaped, returned home, and apparently also spent some time living in a monastery in Gaul (now France). He felt a strong call to return to Ireland and serve there as a missionary. Patrick did not set out on his own; he was sent as a missionary of the church and received support for his work. While he was not even the first Christian missionary sent to Ireland, he has become the most famous. The strength of Christianity in Ireland during the following centuries led to the re-evangelism of Britain and Gaul after those lands had been overrun by pagan Germanic tribes.
During the 1800s, many Irish people fled their homeland for political and economic reasons. Coming to North America, they faced the same problems most immigrants face. They were viewed suspiciously as “un-American” by their neighbors, in large part because of their Roman Catholic beliefs. As a result, they banded together, helped one another find jobs and dwellings, built churches, and tried to teach their children Irish language and customs. They chose March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day (the anniversary of the missionary’s death in 461), as an opportunity to maintain their cultural identity. Over time, as they became increasingly part of the American fabric, their celebrations drew in community leaders, especially politicians. Saint Patrick’s Day parades and celebrations in Chicago, Boston, New York, and even cities like Little Rock and Hot Springs, are a highlight of this time of year.
What are we celebrating? Some people view the day only as an opportunity to drink beer or whiskey. Others use it to participate in cultural events. Christians can also use this day to think of missionaries and of the mission opportunities we have in the world today. As Patrick willingly returned to the place where he had once been a slave to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so today also Christians share the freedom and forgiveness that belongs to us through Christ. J.