Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day Mythbusters

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Here in the U.S., this is the day when everyone wears green, goes to a parade (or went to one this past weekend) and suddenly becomes Irish. And all because its the feast day of a Catholic saint! 

So our society likes to celebrate St. Patrick (or - let's be honest - we just like any excuse to celebrate). But how much do you really know about the patron saint of Ireland? Did he really drive all of the snakes out of Ireland? Did he like green and shamrocks? Did he speak with a thick Irish brogue? 

Some of these questions will never get answered, but we do know some facts about good St. Patrick. For starters, we know that he was ordained as a Catholic bishop to evangelize the people of Ireland and that he died on this day (the year is not certain, but most likely, it was c. 493). What we know for sure about him comes from two of his own writings which have been preserved to this very day. And, of course, there are also many pious legends which have grown up around the person of St. Patrick over the centuries. 

Truth is, Patrick had an amazing life and we are fortunate that he recorded some of the details in his own biographical writings. While it's a bit of a stretch to imagine that Patrick is single-handedly responsible for 
the conversion of the entire island of Ireland to Christianity, his contribution to the building-up and the spread of Christianity among the competing Celtic tribes of Ireland during the fifth century certainly merits our honor and remembrance on this day. 

And now, prepare to amaze your friends today with the top five myths about St. Patrick's Day:

Myth #1: St. Patrick was Irish.

Fact: Nope. 

St. Patrick (or, Patricius), was born around 387 in Roman Britain. He was born into a Christian family: his father, Calpornius, was a deacon and his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest (this was in an era before the discipline of clerical celibacy was widespread). Patrick's own writings record that at the age of 16 he was captured by a group of marauders and taken to Ireland where he was sold as a slave. In Ireland he was forced to be a shepherd and he spent most of his time outdoors and alone. During this time he turned to prayer and his Christian faith for strength. After six years in servitude, Patrick believed God spoke to him and told him it was time to return home. He escaped from his owner and returned to his family in Britain.  

A few years after returning home, Patrick experienced another calling, urging him to return to Ireland - this time as a missionary. Patrick began religious training - a process toward eventual ordination that lasted around 15 years. After his ordination as a priest, Patrick was then consecrated a bishop and sent back to Ireland.

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

Fact: Nope. 

Ireland had already been visited by Catholic missionaries prior to St. Patrick and there were already well-established pockets of Christianity on the island by the time that Patrick himself arrived. There is some evidence of Christian missionary activity in Ireland as early as the fourth century and those unnamed missionaries had some success. In 431, Pope Celestine sent a missionary bishop named Palladius to Ireland. Palladius (not Patrick) was the first bishop sent to Ireland. Palladius died around 457 and, along with St. Patrick, is honored as a saint and as an apostle to the Irish people. Patrick did not arrive back in Ireland as a missionary bishop until at least two years later in 433. 

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

Fact: Unprovable. Not necessarily false, just impossible to prove. 

As I mentioned earlier, we actually have writings by Patrick himself and in them he does not mention the shamrock. The tradition of its use by St. Patrick to teach the pagan Celts about the Triune God 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. It's certainly possible that he could have. What we do know is that it is a pretty cool idea and that the shamrock has now come to be a beloved symbol of St. Patrick.

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

Fact: False. 

While it's true that there are no native snakes in Ireland (while neighboring England is full of them), we probably can't give St. Patrick the credit (despite the fact that this feat has been the subject of some really cool depictions of St. Patrick over the centuries). According to geologists, the island of Ireland's geographic history has kept it snake-free. Snakes aren't exactly keen on cold climates and Ireland was covered with glaciers for ages. By the time the island warmed up again (about 15,000 years ago), there were no land bridges connecting Ireland to England, so Ireland has remained snake-free. 

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

Fact: False. 

It's called assault, so I wouldn't recommend it. 

Seriously, though: have a wonderfully happy St. Patrick's Day. Remember that there was a real man beyond the myths and legends, and that - through the grace of God - he lived such a virtuous life that he attracted many to faith in Christ Jesus. In fact, within a generation of his death, Patrick was already being venerated by the faithful of Ireland as a saint. 

So have fun today! Be joyous and maybe even drink something green. But above all this, take a moment or two to thank the good Lord for the example of Patrick. 

St. Patrick, pray for us!