Focus on Faith
Published in the Wakefield Daily Item
March 15, 2017
If you had met my grandfather and were to ask him about his ethnic or cultural background, he would have told you that he was Irish, and that his ancestors came from County Cork. What always seemed funny to me, though, is that our last name sounds more English than Irish. After undertaking online genealogical research I discovered that, indeed, our ancestral background is more complicated than Grandpa was aware (or likely would have admitted).
His first ancestors came to the American colonies from England in the late 17th century, landing in Boston and then settling in Connecticut. The Irish ancestors came much later, in the 19th century. A subsequent DNA test confirmed these discoveries, suggesting that Grandpa was likely 65% Irish and 35% English. He died in 1986, so I am saved the difficult task of sharing these shocking discoveries with him. From his current vantage point it likely doesn’t matter nearly as much.
Later this week, on March 17, people of many heritages and backgrounds will be observing St. Patrick’s Day. For one day, we are all a little Irish—whatever facts our family trees or DNA tests may reveal. For some, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity to party—to wear green, drink a Guinness or Irish whisky, eat a dinner of corned beef and cabbage, and maybe attend a parade. Sometimes the celebrations of Irish pride can get a little raucous, though all in good fun.
Unfortunately, St. Patrick himself is often left behind in the burst of green exuberance. He was a fascinating figure, the impact of whose life we are still feeling today. Ironically, St. Patrick was not, himself, Irish. He was born on the northwest coast of Britain about the year 390. His grandfather had been a Christian priest and his father was a deacon and an official in the Roman imperial government of Britain. At about the age of 16, Patrick was captured by Irish slave-raiders and brought to Ireland, where he was forced into service as a shepherd. Later he wrote that he deepened in his relationship with God during his enslavement.
After six years of captivity, Patrick escaped. He took an arduous journey by foot to the Irish coast, where he found a ship that took him back to Britain. Once there, he devoted himself to the study of Christianity. Eventually he was ordained as a priest and bishop. A powerful vision led him to return to Ireland, around the year 431—this time as a missionary, rather than as a slave. His new life in Ireland was not easy. His teaching and presence were not always well received. He was a foreigner, without the protection of local kings and chieftains. He spent time in prison and at one point feared execution. In his autobiography he writes that he was criticized by his contemporaries for his lack of learning.
Even so, Patrick’s message of Christian hope led to the conversion of many. Legend suggests that he used local symbols to explain the Christian faith—like the three-leaved shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. He made his appeal to local kings and through them to their tribes, leading thousands to be baptized. Patrick ordained priests and had churches erected over sites held as sacred by the old pagan religion. Crosses were carved on old druidic pillars. He rededicated sacred wells and springs under the protection of Christian saints. Tradition holds that Patrick died on March 17, 461. Although never canonized by a pope, he was venerated as a saint by the Irish people and local Christian communities soon after his death.
What we know of Patrick’s actual life is far more inspiring than the exuberant parties on his feast day would lead us to believe. He is a saint for the Irish people, of course. But, in reality, he can be admired by people of diverse backgrounds—immigrants in desperate search of better lives in new lands, those whose strong faith sustains them through trials and tribulations, people seeking release from captivity and enslavement of many kinds, and anyone in search of meaning and hope. Patrick’s life and story can be guide and inspiration to us all as we journey through life and draw closer to God, whatever our ethnic or religious background.
So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day—to Grandpa Howie, to you, and all who are or who feel Irish this week. May Patrick’s life inspire you in your own search for meaning, hope, and new life. May he lead you to welcome the stranger with open hearts and open arms. May his life of faith spark your own faith. Most of all, may God bless you. Sláinte!
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD