In this post I am making a very simple proposal, that the USCCB upgrade the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day to the status of Solemnity.
There has always been a close connection between Ireland and the United States. Many believe that St. Brendan the Navigator was the first to discover present-day North America during his mythical voyage during the years 512–530. St. Brendan’s travel log the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis was a medieval bestseller. Today not all historians would agree that St. Brendan made it to America, although Tim Pat Severin’s famous 1976 Brendan Voyage where he retraced the famous itinerary laid out in the Navagatio has proven that it was quite possible that America was the destination of Brendan’s voyage (Severin’s book is available here and some video footage here).
However, for those who prefer more rigorous historical proof, recent research has found very early evidence for the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in the present-day United States. The first historically verifiable Irish priest in North America was Fr. Ricardo Artur (Richard Arthur). He was pastor of St. Augustine, FL from 1597 -1606. And obviously one of the most important pastoral initiatives he introduced to his parish was the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Recently discovered records from Spain’s archives of her American colonies yielded a single curious entry: gunpowder expenditures for shooting off cannons during a 1601 St. Patrick’s Day celebration in St. Augustine, Florida. This means that St. Patrick’s Day has been a major feast in North America for almost twice as long as the United States has existed!
Since then the celebration has grown by leaps and bounds and St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most observed religious feasts in the United States. Officially for the Roman Catholics it is only a Commemoration, but in reality it is celebrated with much more popular participation than, for example, the Solemnity of the Annunciation. We can see how widely celebrated it is every seventh year when it falls on a Lenten Friday. In 2017 Rocco Palmo calculated on his Whispers in the Loggia blog that “120-plus US dioceses – fully two-thirds of the nation’s Latin-church sees” had granted the traditional “Corned Beef Indult.”
My proposal is very simple. Seeing that many millions of Roman Catholics in the United States (along with millions of their non-Catholic neighbors) celebrate this religious observance, surely it is in the Church’s best interest to encourage it. Pope Francis reminded us in Amoris Lætitia about how the Church needs to be as insightful as businesspeople in appropriating our religious heritage:
Nor should we underestimate the pastoral value of traditional religious practices. To give just one example: I think of Saint Valentine’s Day; in some countries, commercial interests are quicker to see the potential of this celebration than are we in the Church.
Amoris Lætitia 208.
Ultimately, I am not proposing this simply out of national pride or for a particular cultural heritage. While the start of this post was somewhat tongue in check, I make this proposal in all seriousness. The Catholic Church in the United States has had her difficulties over the last few years and I think a fuller celebration of this feast can help the U.S. Church find herself. St. Patrick was a Christian who lived through very difficult times and inaugurated an evangelization of a people outside the Roman Empire. It is true that for many it is a feast that has more to do with green beer than anything Catholic. But Patrick is not a myth, we have his Confessio or spiritual autobiography and it is still possible for Christians today to encounter the man behind the legends. In a time when many people are enslaved to fears and darknesses of various kinds a renewed devotion to this great saint can help people rediscover the Christian message.