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St. Patrick’s Day: What you should know about the real-life saint

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St. Patrick is featured in a stained-glass window at St. Gabriel Church, Pompano Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

In a historic paradox, the flash and festivities of St. Patrick’s Day — the parades, the mugs of Guinness, the shamrock pins, the “w’arin’ o’ th’ green” — stand in stark contrast with the saint they honor.

The real-life Patrick is indeed renowned — one of the most famous and most loved saints, in fact — but known best for his humility, his passion for God and his commitment to peace. In the Dark Ages, when power and authority were measured by sword and arrow, he somehow won pagan Ireland for Christ without firing a shot.

Oddly, the national saint of Ireland may not have been a native Irishman. Some accounts say he was born into a noble family in fourth century England, then was kidnapped at 16 by pirates and sold into slavery.

In the Emerald Isle, he tended sheep and fell into the habit of praying — sometimes a hundred times a day — until he escaped six years later. Back in England, however, he had a vivid vision of a man begging him to return: “Come to us, O holy youth, and walk among us.”

Photo essay

St. Patrick presides over the church named for him in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Patrick studied for years in France, then was appointed by Pope Celestine I as bishop of Ireland. One problem: He had to win over his new diocese from Druidic paganism.

As the story goes, the confrontation came on Easter eve of 433 at Tara, the realm of the Celtic high king Leoghaire. The king decreed that no fire be kindled before the lighting of a bonfire for the festival of Ostara. In defiance, Patrick lit the Paschal fire on a nearby hill.

Seeing the fire, the high king sent soldiers to put it out and arrest whomever made it. But Patrick and his followers, chanting a prayer, passed among the guards unharmed. They marched to Tara and converted many of Leoghaire’s court to Christianity. The king didn’t follow suit, but he was impressed enough to grant permission for Patrick to preach throughout the island.

Other legends followed, some of them during Patrick’s lifetime. Like the one about him driving all the snakes from Ireland. Or the time he struck a stone pillar dedicated to a Celtic god, crumbling it to dust. Or how he used a three-leaf clover to show God’s triune nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or when he scattered a flock of demons who tried to interrupt his prayer retreat.

Whatever the truth of the tales, Patrick never let fame go to his head. He reportedly wore a rough hair-shirt and slept on a stone slab. And whenever wealthy families offered him expensive gifts, he turned them down.

More than once, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he defused the anger of local chieftains and brought them and their people to the faith. He recruited many men to the ministry, including 350 whom he ordained as bishops.

Patrick was not the first missionary to Ireland; Palladius preceded him, and other Christians lived there. But Patrick’s approach was different, according to the website Ancient History: Palladius came as a representative of the Church, but Patrick came as a “friend of the people … through a deep respect and love for them and a culture he had come to embrace.”

Even those who never met Patrick benefited from his work. The monasteries he and his disciples founded became centers not only of religion but learning and literacy — even safe spaces for commoners to develop skills in weaving, blacksmithing and other trades.

Monastic monks copied and preserved many classic books that might otherwise have been lost in the fall of Rome. They also created gorgeous religious books with extravagant Celtic imagery, like the Book of Kells. And some launched missionary enterprises to the European mainland, evangelizing the barbarian tribes who had overrun the former Roman empire.

Patrick’s life and teaching infused faith with kindness, an engagement with culture, and a simple, single-minded love of God. The blend was good for church and society alike.

He died in 481 at Armagh, in northeastern Ireland. The Irish have celebrated his feast day since 900 A.D.

— Jim Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2018 at 12:55 pm

Holiday Almanac: Jews celebrate Feast of Tabernacles tonight

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 Children building a sukkah at Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel, Israel, during the 1970s. photo by PikiWiki Israel via Wikimedia.org CC-BY-2.5) .

Children building a sukkah at Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel, Israel, during the 1970s. photo by PikiWiki Israel via Wikimedia.org CC-BY-2.5) .

The somber High Holy Days, which ended on Oct. 4, give way tonight to Sukkot, the colorful Feast of Tabernacles. One of the three “Pilgrim Festivals” — the others are Passover and Shavuot — Sukkot recalls the Israelites’ travels in the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

The eight-day festival takes its name from the sukkah , a hut made by many Jewish families and synagogues. Loosely thatched and crudely built, the sukkah reminds Jews of their wandering ancestors’ meager shelters.

Fruits and flowers are hung from the sukkah rafters, recalling the festival’s other significance: gratitude to God for the fall harvest in the Holy Land, for which Israelis still celebrate it. Each morning of Sukkot, traditional Jews recite a blessing while holding four kinds of Israeli plants: a lulav or palm frond, an etrog or citron, and branches of myrtle and willow.

Sukkot has been called the Jewish Thanksgiving and may even have been its model. The American Pilgrims were avid students of the Hebrew Scriptures, even comparing their crossing of the Atlantic to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea. The Pilgrims may well have adapted Sukkot to the New World as well.

The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba, or Great Help. In traditional synagogues on this day, the congregation takes the lulav and etrog in a procession of seven circuits, singing prayers for salvation. Some Jews call this day the “little Yom Kippur,” one more chance to gain God’s favor.

The last day of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly. It is a time to pray for rain in the Holy Land to assure good crops. It is also one of four times during the year for Yizkor memorial prayers honoring the dead.

Yet another event is sometimes celebrated on the same day in many synagogues: Simhat Torah, the jubilant Rejoicing Over the Law. On Simhat Torah, the last lines are read from the giant pulpit Torah scroll in each synagogue. Then the scroll is rewound for another annual cycle of readings — and the rabbi carries it in procession around the synagogue, amid singing and dancing.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 8, 2014 at 6:30 am

Posted in religion

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Holiday Almanac: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

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Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Photo credit: luis tapia via sxc.hu

Monday, Jan. 6, will be Epiphany, the traditional “Twelfth Day of Christmas,” recalling when Christians say Jesus’ divinity was revealed.

For Western churches, especially Roman Catholic, Epiphany is Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men visited the young Jesus. In South Florida, Hispanics celebrate Three Kings Day, with floats and bands in an exuberant parade along Miami’s Calle Ocho.

For Eastern Orthodox churches, Epiphany marks Jesus’ baptism, when a dove settled onto him and a voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” Some parishes, or groups of parishes, gather for a colorful “‘Blessing of the Waters” ceremony, in which youths retrieve a cross that has been thrown into a waterway.

Most liturgical churches will hold formal Epiphany observances on Sunday, Jan. 5. Many parishes use incense as a fragrant reminder of the magi’s gifts to jesus. Eastern Orthodox priests use the day to bless their baptismal fonts by dipping a cross into the water.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

January 2, 2014 at 4:37 am

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