Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday in honor of a man whose life is celebrated in Ireland and all over the world. Set aside the green beer and leprechauns for a minute—and think of the story of the man behind the legend.
Patrick was born in Britain in 385 AD. When he was 16, his family’s home was attacked by a group of Irish pirates, and he was taken from his family and forced into slavery in Ireland, serving a local “king.” He endured extraordinary suffering and loneliness working as a shepherd—living outside with the animals and largely isolated from other people.
Patrick found solace in his faith, which gave him the strength to survive. In spite of his circumstances, he became convinced that God was with him, and he escaped and managed to find his way back to the Irish coast, more than 200 miles from where he was held. When he was able to find passage on a boat that would take him back to Britain, his conviction deepened that God was with him.
After he returned to his home, he threw himself into a life of religious training and spent 15 years in study to become a priest. It was during this time that he began to understand that his real calling was to return to Ireland and share the values of personal virtue and education with those who had enslaved him. He became an outspoken champion of human rights—speaking out against slavery some 1,500 years before it was outlawed in Britain and the new world!
Patrick’s conviction that he was being called by God was confirmed in a dream in which he heard the people of Ireland call out to him saying, “O holy boy, we beg you to come again and walk among us.” He returned to Ireland, saying that he had come back “for the love of neighbors, sons and daughters.”
For some 30 years he worked in Ireland, challenging inhuman practices while affirming and embracing the aspects of the culture that he believed were good. Describing himself as a “lowly, unlearned exile,” and armed with only his own faith and determination, he endured physical hardship and danger to bring his values to the people he felt called to serve. Ignorance and prejudice were overcome by his sheer insistence that there was a better way, and thousands responded to him—including the very “kings” who had once enslaved him. In his writing he described those with whom he worked as “increasingly beautiful,” and he was beloved for bringing new ideas and ways of living to all of Ireland. Tradition holds that he died on March 17 in 461 AD, and the day has been commemorated as “St. Patrick’s Day” ever since.
It is because of his message of social unity, personal courage in the face of hardship, and fidelity to the highest convictions that St. Patrick came to be held in such high esteem throughout the world. The first St. Patrick’s Day in the colonies of the new world was celebrated in Boston in 1737.
As a part of a faith-based organization that seeks to live out our mission with fidelity and courage, I believe we can take great solace and strength from Patrick’s story. Our mission matters, and we are called to make a difference in the world as we see it. Patrick teaches us to be faithful and true to our best values—our highest calling. Let us appreciate the way in which we are called to reach out with love and faithfulness to do what Patrick called “this holy and wonderful work.”
This is what St. Patrick’s Day really celebrates.