We’re three days away from Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s time to roll out the “What We Can All Learn from Saint Patrick” articles and essays from Irish loving bandwagon jumpers everywhere! Aren’t we all a little bit Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day? Don’t we all have some Irish religious opinions on this the High Holy Day of Irish loving Celtic Christian types everywhere? Why yes! I believe I do have something to say!
Please, spare me the sentimental claptrap about a semi-mythical slave trader whose legends have nothing to do with the religious realities in a secularized Ireland or a politically divided America. This is not one of this articles. You’ve been warned.
Saint Patrick, the man venerated each year on March 17th, is a combination of myth and multiple people, who reputable historians can’t accurately describe, define, or delineate from countless other figures in post-Roman Britain. In many ways, the mythological figure of Saint Patrick symbolizes much about modern Ireland: religious contradictions built upon political misconceptions.
In this country, where more Irish live than in Ireland proper, we have idealized images of green fields, thatched cottages, and the Ireland we see on PBS specials. We know of the Ireland we hear from relatives and stories like Angela’s Ashes. Two weeks on a bus around the Galway Coast, one go at the Blarney Stone, and a few dollars to Ancestry.com and you’re as Irish as Michael Collins or Saint Patrick himself.
Sadly, that’s not Ireland. After giving two of the hardest and most demanding years of my life to living and ministering in an Irish town that once held the reputation as the “most bombed city in the world” (after falling prey to the Irish propaganda machine-yes, some of it Guinness fueled); I can honestly say I am no clearer today on what Ireland is or what Saint Patrick means. Anyone who gives you a definite answer is drunk on their own Guinness.
If anything, I’ve grown more certain of one fact: Ireland resembles the rest of Europe in that the church is dying. In the land where Saint Patrick was a missionary, where he is still revered as a saint in the North and South, the church he is credited with founding is dying. The Christians who are his descendants learned nothing from him despite embracing his legacy and teaching, year after bloody year.
The church in Ireland (Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Catholic) isn’t dying because of feuds over scripture, gay marriage, or any of the things we’re fighting over. I think it’s finally hitting home that the churches in Ireland stood silent for centuries while its members murdered each other in the streets and fields of the Emerald Isle-all while celebrating the common legacy of Saint Patrick. They killed each other. United Methodists, on the other hand, are committing denominational suicide. Why not do it while we tell ourselves Saint Patrick was an environmentalist mystic? As Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted would say, “Oh, go on now!”
No, to paraphrase the great Canadian vocalist Shania Twain, Saint Patrick and his legacy “don’t impress me much”. Maybe it was the day I was beat up by a group of thugs on the street outside my church. Maybe it was the day I was yelled at by church members for taking my family to view our town’s local Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Perhaps it was a combination of factors. For one reason or another, the scales fell from my eyes and I realized: the Saint Patrick’s Day myth is harmful and wrong. Look what it’s done to Ireland. When your Christianity (and idea of church) is built on a myth, no matter how inspirational the blessings and the prayers attributed to a fifth century slave trader appear to be, your Christianity is still formed on a myth. Eventually people figure out the truth (no matter how green the beer is and how good the parades are) and stop coming to church.
What myths like Saint Patrick are we recycling? Too many for me to name here.
Richard Lowell Bryant