This is Our Faith
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March 2024

If you were to visit Boston, New York City, or Chicago on March 17, you might be surprised to find the cities effectively shut down for parades and revelries that begin early in the morning and last well into the night. You would see people decked out in green and wearing clothing decorated with shamrocks. In New York City, you would look up to see the Empire State Building illuminated with green lights, and in Chicago, you would notice that the river had been dyed green. Similar celebrations are held around the world, especially in those places shaped by Irish immigrants or the missionary work of the Irish Church. Together with Ireland, these towns and cities celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick (d. 5th century).

Most people familiar with St. Patrick know the legend of how he explained the Trinity using an analogy of a three-leaf clover: just as the three-leaf clover has three distinct lobes but is yet one leaf, so too the Trinity is three persons in one God. Other people may know something of the famous breastplate, or Lorica, of St. Patrick, often shortened to the following prayer: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.”

So, who was St. Patrick? Interestingly, he wasn’t Irish! Rather, Patrick was born in Britain, probably to a family that was culturally Roman and thus Christian. (Julius Caesar had invaded Britain in 55 B.C., and Roman incursions continued through the first century A.D., gradually establishing Roman settlements and bringing Roman culture, including the Christian faith). When he was a teenager, Patrick was kidnapped by a raiding party and taken as a slave to Ireland, a place Christianity had yet to penetrate. Years later, he escaped, taking a boat back to Britain. He may also have spent some time at a monastery in northern France.

One night, Patrick had a dream in which he heard the voice of the Irish people calling out to him, begging for his return to Ireland. He understood the dream to be a sign that he needed to return to the land of his captors and evangelize them. This he did, preaching and baptizing with such zeal that he eventually became known as the Apostle to Ireland and, upon his death, became the patron saint of Ireland.

The impact of St. Patrick, however, is felt far beyond Ireland. Because of his missionary work, Christianity took deep root in Ireland. Monasteries were established (one of which was used as a filming location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi). The Irish monks developed a practice of individual spiritual accompaniment that eventually shaped the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. These same monks also learned Latin and built enormous libraries filled with beautiful copies of scripture (google the Book of Kells), ancient literary texts, and the works of the Church Fathers.

When the Irish monks built these monastic libraries, they could not have foreseen the impact they would have. While they were building monasteries and copying texts, other monasteries and libraries across Europe were being destroyed by groups like the Vikings, Goths, and Vandals. Nearly a century after St. Patrick had brought Christianity to Ireland, Irish monks left the Emerald Isle and fanned out across Europe. They established new monasteries, brought copies of texts that had been destroyed, and set up schools where Latin, the language of the Church, could be learned.

Today, scholars are beginning to recognize how much we owe the Irish, who “saved civilization” (Thomas Cahill). When we celebrate St. Patrick on March 17, we celebrate more than the apostle to Ireland. We are celebrating the impact that one man’s faith and obedience can have on the arc of history. Let us give thanks for the faith of the Irish! Erin go Bragh!

Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese.