Dear Saint Patrick,
Usually at this time of year, people who are Irish or are of Irish descent send greetings to one another by way of cards, postcards, phone calls and letters—or even little plastic encased packages of shamrock—to celebrate your Feast Day. It was a red-letter day (or perhaps it should be more appropriate to say “green-letter day”?) in our household when the mailbox revealed greetings mailed from relatives in Ireland, not to mention the odd greeting card from the neighbor up the block. It was a much-anticipated ritual besides Mass and soda bread, corned beef and cabbage and the ubiquitous parade on television. And when the Gaelic greetings arrived on the big day itself, it made it even more exciting.
My mother had a sister-in-law back in County Mayo who would write these wonderful twelve page letters (front and back of the lined pages and even up the sides of the margins if the news was really good and gossipy), telling us everything she thought we’d needed to know about the comings and goings of the family back home. Not to be outdone, my father’s family—from County Cavan—would also send St. Patrick’s Day greetings to us too. If, by chance, you held the envelopes close enough to your face and gently let it pass under your nose, you could swear that you could smell the aroma of the turf fire or the green fields and the haystacks of the countryside. It was all a welcome respite in the middle of Lent; it helped to lift the dreariness of the winter that promised to be almost past. So I thought it would be appropriate to write a few lines to you, on March 17, the day of your Feast.
Don’t worry, I won’t bother you with a very long letter like my aunt's—though her letters were far more interesting than anything I could hope to write. Though there is something I’ve always wanted to ask you…
On this day, throughout the world, everything turns a distinct shade of green in your honor and everyone wants to be in on it, wearing green clothing and apparel and there are those who go so far as to paint their faces and extremities green as well. (And in some instances, even the family pet gets in on the act, too—possibly with a doggie version of an Aran sweater with matching cap!) In recent years there has been a movement throughout the world to have famous landmarks lit in green light and to have rivers, lakes and streams dyed green for the day. And in Ireland itself, the celebration of your Feast is no longer just a day, or a week, but even the whole month of March and St. Patrick’s Day is transformed into the St. Patrick’s Festival.
Down through the ages, you have been presented to us as a humble man and a sincere man; you, despite your “unworthiness,” never gave up in your quest to serve and know a loving God. Even when you fasted and prayed for forty days on the mountain in County Mayo that bears your name you sought Him. Through all your travels the length and breath of Ireland, you went among the people teaching them about the Triune God and built Christian communities wherever you went. It was the work of your life and I wonder, would you do it all over again, knowing what you went through?
It seems an impertinent question for me to ask, but I wonder how you would feel if you were to walk the roads of Ireland today. In the centuries since you came, Ireland has gone through so much suffering and hardship and it was only in recent decades that it assumed its place among the nations of the world, with relative prosperity. Yet it is suffering again, in ways no one could have anticipated. The causes and effects are myriad and diverse; but it is enough to say that the land where religious faith had famously flourished because of your example has seen the shine of its light dimmed through the secularism of doubt and confusion due to the misdeeds and the hubris of those who were supposed to be the stewards of faith, with the end result that far less people put their faith in the faith of their fathers and mothers of ages past.
Everyone knows about how you were kidnapped as a young man and forced to become a shepherd of a flock of sheep and how you shivered from the cold and how you missed your former life and wondered many times over what would become of you. Even when you were rescued and went back you could not erase it all from your mind, your heart and even your soul. The famous dream you had, beckoning you to come back among the Irish people had its pull, and you did not resist. You came back; you were converted to God and your life’s mission was before you and you became part of the people you served. You embraced the Irish and the Irish embraced you.
And so it was.
Because of you, St. Patrick, Ireland became a home to Christianity and it, in turn, became an apostle to the nations, showing even in the darkest times, that there was a light to dispel the darkness and that faith and learning, faith and seeking for the truth were not opposites, but of one whole. It is little remarked upon, but you are the only bishop in the history of Christianity to condemn slavery outright as being the antithesis to the Christian message. You, who were once a slave, knew the cost of bondage and what it could do to the human heart and the human spirit. You, who were once the slave, turned slavery inside out and turned it into a lifetime of service to others, which is the essence of Christianity.
Dear Saint Patrick, you who felt most unworthy—and as you say in your Confessions, “unlearned”—knew in your own life that living was not easy and that it was impossible not having God above you, beside you, within you—and near you. Our poor world today is suffering from so many things and for many inexplicable reasons, and yet it lacks the armor of faith which with to combat them. This is true, even in dear old Ireland, where you once trod. You need to come back among us again and show us the light of faith again, like you once did. Walking with your staff and teaching the old truths again, so we may ponder and understand what is truly important in this life. You, the former slave, need to free us from our new bondage and help us believe again. Perhaps by this new miracle of faith, you can really make Irish eyes smile again.
So, with that prayer, dear Saint Patrick, I close this letter. I do so with some trepidation, making such a bold request of you. But legend has it that in Heaven, you care for your far-flung Irish flock, wherever they are, wherever they may be and that you supposedly made God promise you that in return for your faithfulness that you will be the one to look after your adopted sons and daughters from afar. Please, always do so, and most importantly—keep us near. And help our faith to flower again and become alive and flourish like the shamrock you once held up for all to see and understand.