St. Patrick’s Day should be a Solemnity in the U.S.

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.

14 comments

  1. I’m somewhat bemused as to how St. Brendan could have ‘discovered America’ on a MYTHICAL voyage? Unless of course America is a mythical place …

    AG

    1. It is an obvious and excellent suggestion. Many of these Catholic saints feastdays have indeed become appropriated by various worldly elements, but they remain hugely popular. It is perhaps time for the church to reclaim what is ours. St. Patrick’s ‘Confessio’ (I re-read it every year at this time) is a truly unique and moving text, mystical and uplifting. The only voice from the early church that has survived from ‘outside’ the Roman Empire. Moreover, St. Patrick is one of the few Western saints that have recently been included by our brethern for veneration in the Orthodox Church.

      St. Brendan of Clonfert was a real, very early Irish church founder. The ‘Navigatio Sancti Brendani’ was indeed hugely popular across Europe in the Middle Ages. The account is ‘mythical’ in the sense that it is based on a much older Irish story type known as ‘immrana’ (voyages), and so much like its pagan antecedents contains a series of wondorous (albeit Christianized) episodes of what is experienced on the voyage, metaphors of the ups-and-downs of spiritual life. There is some evidence from the early Irish church that when a Christian sought solitude or to found a new church, or were simply unsure of what Our Lord wanted of them, they would launch a boat on the sea, allowing the waters to guide them to wherever God wanted them. A powerful (or foolhardy) trust in divine providence. Whatever of their ‘mythical’ nature these tales remain as powerful witness to the trust these men had in God. Needless to say, they proved important to Irish Catholics during darker times (16th century onwards) and motivated missionaries in the 19th century too. A clever way to promote the adventure of evangelization. Perhaps we could do with more of that?

      1. The only voice of the *Roman* church that survived from outside the Roman empire; we Romans tend to forget the Oriental traditions that became deeply rooted outside that empire, in Axsum (Abyssinia/Ethiopia), non-Roman Armenia and the Persian empire and beyond.

        The interesting thing from a current-day perspective about the advent of Christianity in Ireland is that, like the Apostolic Age, it was relatively peaceful and not introduced or reinforced by the conquest of a people by another people (or defensively adopted to in apprehension of such a conquest), unlike a lot of the Christianization of parts of Europe that followed in the centuries to follow.

  2. St. Patrick’s Day is a cultural celebration and not a religious holiday in the USA. It’s a day for excess drinking, eating, and wearing ridiculous green outfits and various paraphenalia. And in some cases, for nationalism. No one says, “Let’s go to Mass before we go to the pub to get blotto.” Even by people who may attend Sunday Mass with various degrees of regularity. It’s no more religious than St. Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, or Memorial Day. More people may actually attend Mass on Memorial Day than St. Patrick’s. More needless re-arranging the deck chairs.

    1. Thanks John, but I beg to differ, I have seen plenty of people in the US going to Mass on St. Patrick’s Day. Admittedly many many more people mark the feast by drinking green beer. But my point is that precisely because a feast with Catholic origins is already being celebrated popularly, we should use this as a springboard for evangelization and not simply ignore it. My argument is based on what Pope Francis said in the quote above.

      1. Nope–sorry Fr. Neil, I don’t buy it. Francis used the not very good example of St. Valentine’s Day, a saint who has been removed from the Roman Calendar. Is he going to restore his feast as a start? What will making March 17 a solemnity accomplish in the eyes of the world? And what will the Roman community do differently to evangelize on that day?
        St. Patrick’s Day in the US has little to do with him and everything to do with being Irish or that “Everyone is Irish on St. Paddy’s Day!”, luck and four-leafed clovers, leprachauns, beer, authentic corned beef and cabbage, and soda bread.

      2. The other thing St Patrick’s Day was a tribal day. As in the cardinal archbishop of New York sitting on a throne atop the steps of the west front of St Patrick’s Cathedral, with his court suitably arrayed astride said steps, as the tribe passed in review, as it were. (Boston’s St Patrick’s Day parade, by odd contrast, was for most of its history technically the Evacuation Day parade to celebrate the British evacuation of Boston on 17 March 1776 – the first major evacuation of British forces from American territory – after the investment of Dorchester Heights in what is now South Boston, the location of said parade, to force a lifting of the 11-month long Siege of Boston and did not pass by or even near the Cathedral of The Holy Cross in the South End of Boston – if it had, it would have marched under the shadow of former longtime elevated rapid transit tracks that allowed for loud screeching of trains to be heard during Masses inside the cathedral. The old line Yankees had a dark sense of humor when they approved the placement of those tracks before Irish dominance of local government could have prevented it.)

      3. Fr. Neil, you would know better than I. Could an individual ordinary make St. Patrick’s a solemnity? The reason I ask is that while a lot of the major diocese in the U.S. (Boston and New York for example) have strong Irish roots and it makes sense to raise Ireland’s patronal feast day to a solemnity. However, I feel that this consideration leaves out other immigrant groups. For example, why not make St. Boniface’s feast day a solemnity in the German triangle (Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.) I am sure that in more Hispanic populated dioceses (depending on the country of origin) could also make their native patron a solemnity on their local calendars.

      4. I can speak to Boston, Massachusetts: St Patrick is the principal patron of the Archdiocese of Boston and, as such, his day only ranks as a feast (II.8(a) under the table of precedence of liturgical days), so an affirmative dispensation is required from the ordinary when the day falls on a Friday (next to happen in 2023) to be permitted to eat meat throughout the archdiocese (which is customarily given).

        I believe the ordinary would need permission from Rome to elevate the observance to a solemnity in the local ordo, and since the only effect of doing that would be to automatically provide a dispensation from Lenten abstinence every 5/6/11 years, something the ordinary can affirmatively do on his own, I don’t see why a request would likely be received well or, frankly, bothered with.

        The Irish-American community in Boston is hardly the beleaguered one of 150 years ago, but has been the primary locus of power for a century, possibly in a way that is not true in any other major US metropolis (having grown up in Greater NYC area, I can definitely say the Irish flavor of Greater NYC area was quite different from that of Greater Boston, quite possibly because that of the latter was dominantly drawn from one region of Ireland (Counties Kerry and Cork) in a way that was not true of the former – just as Greater Boston’s Italian-American community was dominated by emigrants from the province of Avellino in Campania – in both the Irish and Italian cases, deepening the strong tendency of already tribal Boston to very strong localism, shall we say).

  3. My first thought – and it seems to have been John Kohanski’s as well – is that the current cultural observation of St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. resembles Mardi Gras more than anything else.

    Two days later – March 19 – we have an already-Solemnity in the feast of St. Joseph; of course, March 25: the Annunciation. Seems like we already have plenty of opportunity for prayerful observance of Solemnities in March.

  4. It’s odd but due to my background I think of S. Patrick’s Day as only a holy day. Indeed it was one of the few days a year that a solemn high mass with due pomp was celebrated in the church. Devotions and benediction ensued.

    Plays and songs would take place in the church hall under the watchful eyes of the FCJs. Often a boiled dinner and cake were offered in the evening. Nothing unwholesome.

    Ah well this goes back to the time when Pius XII or John XXIII were gloriously reigning. Need I say more?

  5. Just what we need. Another solemnity in Lent. Truly, I wouldn’t mind holding St. Patrick’s day as a solemnity, but how about if they move the date to the season of Ordinary Time?

    Besides, I agree with all the commenters who have noted the associations with boisterous revelry and Irish pride eclipse the saint’s own very solemn holiness and witness to the power of God’s love. It’s about as hard to turn back this tide of shamrocks and green beer as it would be to reclaim the martryrdom of St. Valentine from the chocolate industry.

    BTW, I sympathize with the Irish pride business, broadly, and in its origins. Most Irish Catholic immigrants came to this country desperately poor and fleeing the potato famine, only to be treated as animals here and despised as an uncouth horde, and this after having endured the British occupation in their native land that tried to crush their culture, suppress their language, and oppress their religion. This isn’t where Ireland is today, but it’s where the American Irish came from, many of them, and to me St. Patrick’s day was always colored by the history of immigration and overcoming obstacles to acceptance in American culture.

    None of which has much to do with St. Patrick, when you come right down to it.

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