By Matthew Hennessey
The snow is finally melting. You know what that means: St. Patrick’s Day will soon be here. I am fond of this holiday. And not just because I enjoy the celebration, though I do. St. Patrick’s Day always puts me in mind of the faith and struggles of those who came before. Including the man himself.
St. Patrick lived in the 4th and 5th centuries. As this was a very long time ago, most of what we know about his life is legend. But it makes a good story, and we Irish enjoy a good story.
“I know about St. Patrick,” says my daughter, Clara. She is in the first grade. “He traveled all around Ireland handing out shamrocks.” Clara doesn’t often volunteer what she’s learning about in school. But sometimes we can put the pieces together. Another legend, Johnny Appleseed, has apparently been high on the agenda. It seems there has been some confusion.
“That’s close,” I say, “But I don’t think he gave them out.”
“Yes he did. And when he gave them out he told the people about the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
“You’re right about that part,” I say, relieved that she’s got the basics down. This is the perfect moment, I decide, to begin at the beginning. “A long time ago, St. Patrick was a priest in Ireland. A bishop, actually.”
“Just like Bishop Lori!”
“Yes, that’s true,” I say, slightly stunned. We were treated to a surprise visit at St. A’s recently from our own Bishop of Bridgeport. I wasn’t sure she remembered. We made an early exit from mass when Clara’s two-year old brother, himself named after Ireland’s patron saint, had an unexpected “issue” making things unpleasant for the rest of our pew. Our Paddy doesn’t stand on ceremony. Even for bishops.
“St. Patrick had a crosier, just like Bishop Lori does,” Clara goes on.
“I’m sorry, a what?”
“A crosier. That’s his shepherd’s staff.”
My wife and I find these unprompted declarations a useful reminder to watch what we say. These kids are sponges. They soak it all up, the good along with the bad. I don’t remember learning in religious education about things like crosiers. But that was the 1970s. Things were a little looser then.
Clara’s lesson continues. “St. Patrick used his crosier to kill all the snakes in Ireland.”
It was starting to make sense to me now. Bishop Lori spoke during his homily about the allegory of Christ as the Good Shepherd. He used his crosier to illustrate the point. Come to think of it, it wasn’t unlike St. Patrick using the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity to the pagan Irish.
When this chit-chat started, I thought I was the teacher. Now I am beginning to wonder.
“St. Patrick didn’t really kill any snakes,” I say. “I mean, maybe he did, I don’t know. But when they say he drove the snakes out of Ireland, they really mean that he got people to give up all the bad ideas and sinful things that they were doing in those days and follow Christ.”
There is no doubt in my mind that as I was speaking Clara was quietly imagining Bishop Lori killing snakes with his crosier. That’s just how her little mind works.
“I don’t like snakes,” she says. Experienced parents can tell when a conversation is veering toward nightmare material.
“I know, sweetheart, me neither. It sounds like you already know a lot about St. Patrick, but all you really need to know is that he was a very important person for Ireland and for all Irish people everywhere. That’s why we have a day to celebrate him,” I say.
Sometimes cutting it short is the best you can do. Next up? Easter. That’s going to be an interesting discussion.
The snow is finally melting. Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone.
From the March 2011 edition of Fairfield County Catholic, the monthly newspaper of the Diocese of Bridgeport.