Happy St. Patrick’s Day! As thousands flock to Savannah to wear green and celebrate, your local Catholic has to, off course, pipe up with a little explanation of St. Patrick and saints and to clarify that much like Jesus’ Birthday, the way that this day is celebrated in the modern time is fun but not necessarily a reflection of who it was originally about, nor is our honoring saints about getting drunk and dying fountains green.
For a long time I thought that St. Patrick was a Leprechaun-like figure who found a shamrock and used it to teach people about rainbows and the Trinity. Then, I learned about him in school (and a really good PBS “Wishbone” episode) and realized what an incredible model of evangelism and holiness he was. St. Patrick wasn’t actually Irish, he was born in Gaul and kidnapped at the age of 16. He was sold as a slave to a chieftain and was held captive there for 6 years where he learned the Celtic culture and language. He escaped and upon his return to England studied for and was ordained a priest. He was well known for his ability to explain and defend his faith. However, a vision of the children from Ireland who said to him, “O holy youth, come back to Erin, and walk once more amongst us” led to him returning to Ireland to share Christ with those who had once enslaved him. The encounters he had there are pretty amazing, for more details check out http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11554a.htm. In summary, St. Patrick was able to show that God was all-powerful over the superstitious practices that those in the country were engaged in, much more than just holding up a shamrock to show the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through it all the people listened because he understood their culture and native language. A pretty amazing role model.
Now, why do we call him a “saint” and what’s the deal with saints anyways? Sometimes our practices of putting up pictures and statues of those who have gone before us are seen as superstitious or idolatrous. First of all, it’s important to know that we worship God alone. To worship anyone or anything besides God is idolatrous and wrong. However, we believe that the lives and examples of those who have followed God in a heroic way are worth looking to for inspiration and encouragement; furthermore we believe that they can intercede for us in heaven just like those who are still on earth can intercede for each other. John 15:1-5 tells us that Christ is the vine, we are the branches. We are the Body of Christ, if Christ is the vine than we are all connected not just to Him, but to one another and we know that death cannot separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35-39). We know that those in heaven pray (Revelation 5:8, Revelation 8:3-4), so why not for us? Just like we put up pictures of friends and family members we want to remember, we use pictures and statues of the saints to remember how those in our extended “Christian Family” followed Christ and to offer us encouragement when the Christian walk gets challenging. Obviously, Christ is the perfect role model for us, but just like St. Paul tells us to “imitate me as I imitate Christ”, looking to the way other Christians have followed Christ is a source of encouragement for us and gives us concrete ways to handle challenging situations.
Anyone in heaven is a saint, but there are certain “players on team Catholic” that the Church wants to uphold as especially good examples (think of it as our hall of fame). So, when you hear us refer to someone as Saint so-and-so, it means that the Church has declared them to be especially good role models for us, after careful investigation of their lives and writings. The Church does this through a process called “canonization”. When the Church canonizes saints, they often make them a patron of a certain cause, country or group. So, St. Patrick, because of his witness and work in Ireland, was declared the patron saint of Ireland.
Not sure how we went from a heroic example of evangelization to green beer and fountains, but that’s the story on saints! Cheers!