Saint Patrick deserves more on his day

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 12, 2001


Monday, March 12, 2001

St. Patrick’s Day is upon us and will suffer the same trivializing fate of most holidays. Attention by the crowds will have about as much to do with Patrick as Memorial Day does with war dead. We need better from the day, and the man deserves better from us. The saint was an ordinary human who was extraordinarily successful in fighting pagan fires with the fire of primitive Christianity. Patrick escaped enslavement and found deliverance from the greater enslavement of immorality, and then returned to Ireland to free his former captors from their own self-destructive superstitions.

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Check the Web sites designed to provide for the day, and you see shamrocks, shillelaghs, and leprechauns. You know what will be worn Saturday: green clothing, green hair, and anything outrageously green. Much behavior will be more so. In point of fact, some will almost simulate the drunken, sexual orgies Patrick attacked and from which he delivered with a message of decency and genuine love.

Not every celebration, mind you, but these are those that grieve me when I think of the day. There will also be wholesome fun with good friends and joy at coming through the hardships that so often faced the Irish. Some will become Irish for the day and others will conjure up the Irish strains within their multi-cultural heritage.

Mine is Dr. George Mosse (1742-1808), my fifth great grandfather who left his Dublin medical practice for Savannah. He served as a surgeon in the Continental Army and escaped from British capture. How better could an Irish-American do? He became a founder and first deacon of Savannah’s First Baptist Church, which recently commemorated its 200th anniversary. Arriving in Dublin just after last year’s St. Patrick’s Day, I did feel at home. I thought much of Grandfather and looked more closely at Patrick.

A few Web sites and much Irish lore go to the opposite extreme and make claims for the saint as mythical and superstitious as Cuchulain and other champions of Celtic sagas. Patrick just was not super-human; but, surely, he was strongly human.

Patrick (c390-c461) was kidnapped from Roman Britain at age 16 and taken to Ireland where he was sold into slavery. For six years he tended sheep in the wilds for a Celtic chieftain. While isolated in the hills, he envisioned a better life more informed by reasonable spirituality. Escaping to Gaul, he found Christianity.

He was neither Roman Catholic nor protestant but, rather, an adherent of and priest for a pre-Roman primitive expression of Christianity. The theological perspective that influenced him was Johannine (the tradition from the Apostle John) rather than Petrine (that from the Apostle Peter, followed by the church at Rome). No church ever canonized him as a "saint."

Contrary to popular lore, he did not introduce Christianity to Ireland but was dispatched to minister pastorally to the small flock of believers already there, having come largely from Scotland and England. However, he became evangelistic with a vengeance and directly confronted the high priests of Celtic paganism. When they built a fire on the sun gods’ holy day and sacrificed young maidens, Patrick built a larger fire on Tara and proclaimed the resurrection of Christ that brings eternal life to those who trust him. He turned the pagan slaughter into the new birth of resurrection, and Easter began a Christian day that overshadows the pagan.

The "miracles" he performed were not expelling snakes from Ireland or any of the other ridiculous and undocumented claims that have proliferated, but he transformed brutes into saints by the power of the gospel. He took the strategic approach of the Apostle Paul, who told the Roman official in Philippi that he would be saved from sin by belief in Christ – "you and your household" (Acts 16:30), and converted first tribal chieftains and then saw the clansmen follow faithfully.

Patrick was a saint who requires no official pronouncement so to be recognized by history. He transformed an entire people by his faithful and loving ministry, and that faith and love persist. Don green on Saturday, if you will, and have a lot of fun – but do remember Patrick by sharing the saving love he brought to Ireland and faithful Irish have spread around the world.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays.