Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick, pray for us

Did you know that St. Patrick was never canonized by a pope? For the first thousand years of its existence, the Church did not have the formal process for canonization that it does today. Such things were done at the local or diocesan level; when someone was universally acclaimed to be very holy, permission was granted by the local ordinary to celebrate that person as a saint liturgically. So while St. Patrick was venerated as a saint almost immediately after his death by both the Western and Eastern Churches, he was never formally canonized by any pope.

Today is one of those rare saints' memorials that has spilled into the popular culture. It isn't difficult to see why: American Catholicism is still to a large extent the child of Irish Catholicism. In our diocese of Sacramento, the Irish have played an integral part in building the Catholic community from the start. He probably doesn't do the internet, but in case he ever reads this, a happy St. Patrick's Day to you Fr. O'Kelly! (He's in residence at my home parish.) Thomas Day had a good comment in his book, Why Catholics Can't Sing: American seminaries are still largely run by priests of Irish descent. So a priest may have a last name like Kosczinski, Mbutu, or Rodriguez, but he'll have a mind that may as well have come from County Cork.

And we have St. Patrick to thank for it. As a teenager living on the former Roman province of Britannia, he was captured by slave traders and taken to the isle of Eire, where he worked as a shepherd for many years. He was told in a dream that he would some day escape from the isle but return to spread the Faith. St. Patrick himself testifies in his Confession that spending so much time alone with his flock enabled him to pray without ceasing. He eventually did escape and was ordained a priest and then a bishop. He did return to Eire and eventually converted the whole island. His iconography and pious legends credit him with driving out all of the snakes in Ireland, but today several scholars say that the snakes were meant to be symbolic of paganism and error.

I have an especial love for St. Patrick - when I converted I chose him as my baptismal saint. He is also the co-patron of the Diocese of Sacramento and the patron of this seminary. I think that St. Patrick was a perfect example of a true pastor of souls, to go back to the entry I wrote yesterday. Today he is more remembered as a cultural icon than as a man who really lived and walked this earth. With our culture in the United States the way it is today, I believe all Catholics need to have some of that missionary zeal St. Patrick possessed to such an eminent degree.

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