Thursday, March 17, 2011

Catholic Mythbusters: St. Patrick's Day edition

On this day, everyone suddenly becomes Irish and everyone becomes an expert on St. Patrick. You can amaze your friends with the top five myths about St. Patrick's Day.

Truth is, Patrick had an amazing story and we are fortunate that he recorded some of the details in his own biographical writings. What is no myth is the fact that Patrick's missionary activity in Ireland during the fifth century led to the conversion of nearly the entire island to Christianity and so, he is deserving of our honor on this day. But there are also some "facts" circulating about St. Patrick that just aren't so. Here they are:

Myth #1: St. Patrick was Irish.

Fact: Probably not. St. Patrick (or, Patricius), was probably born in Roman Britain around the year 387. Theories differ on exactly where he was born, but either modern-day Wales or Scotland seem the most likely places. At age 16, he was captured by a group of marauders and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave to an Irish chieftain named Milchu. He lived as a slave for six years in Dalriada, located in modern-day County Antrim but he escaped and fled to Gaul (modern-day France). Only years later, as an adult and a newly-consecrated Catholic bishop, did Patrick return to Ireland as a missionary.

Myth #2: St. Patrick was the first Christian missionary to Ireland.

Fact: No. Ireland had already been visited by Christian missionaries prior to St. Patrick. There is some evidence of Christian missionary activity in Ireland as early as the fourth century but those unnamed missionaries had little success. In 431, Pope Celestine sent a missionary bishop named Palladius who became the first bishop sent to Ireland. It seems that he ministered in the modern area of Leinster and did not enjoy much success, either. Patrick did not arrive back in Ireland as a missionary bishop until 433.

Myth #3: St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the doctrine of the Trinity.

Fact: Unprovable. We have writings by Patrick himself and in them, he does not mention the shamrock. The tradition of its use by St. Patrick can be dated no earlier than the 18th century. The truth is, we just don't know whether St. Patrick used the shamrock or not. What we do know is that it is a pretty cool notion, though, and that the shamrock is in no danger of losing its status as an important national symbol for Ireland.

Myth #4: St. Patrick drove all of the snakes out of Ireland.

Fact: While it's true that there are no snakes in Ireland (while neighboring England is full of them), we can't give St. Patrick the credit. According to geologists, the island of Ireland separated from the continent of Europe well before the end of the last Ice Age and hasn't had snakes since.

Myth #5: You should pinch people who don't wear green on St. Patrick's Day.

Fact: It's called assault. I wouldn't recommend it.