According to legend, St. Patrick, a former slave, converted the Irish to Christianity in the 5th century. He drove out the snakes to rid the island of evil, used the shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, and for it all, became the mascot of many a parade and church the world over. The first bishop of Ireland with his staff in hand beckons us from the sketchy past to celebrate the triumph of Catholic faith and the centuries of loyal devotion, often amidst harsh suffering, that followed for the people of the Emerald Isle. Through it all, Patrick remains.
But legend also gives us a clue to why St. Patrick is still important today. We know little of Patrick that would count as credible history by today’s standards, but tradition teaches us that he was a master of how to bring faith and culture into dialogue. Rather than oppose the traditions of the people to which he was trying to bring to the Gospel, he searched their practices for symbols and messages that were consistent with his faith.
Before Patrick, the Irish, we believe, were sun worshippers and studied the stars and the moon and venerated their power. Their rituals centered on the sun and their symbolic representation of divine energy was the circle--an earth bound geometry representing a force of tremendous wonder. They knew nothing of Jesus of Nazareth.
Rather than attack their “pagan” beliefs, Patrick sought the spiritual common ground between them and the Christ of Scripture. To help people understand the power of the savior, he took the perfect circle representing the light of the sun--a sacred symbol--and joined it to the shape of the cross-a sacred symbol too. The result is the Celtic cross that has survived 1600 years in which a circle is overlayed at the intersection of a cross. We still see that “Celtic cross” around the world, circle and cross together, symbol of the power of nature’s light joined to the symbol of the person of divine light. It is an iconic example of the unifying power of a symbol and the unifying power of faith.
Patrick’s genius was simple: He recognized that the spirit was at work in people well before they knew the language of any one religion. He must have known that at some level, those people who worshipped the sun were worshipping the universe in all its awe and wonder. He must have known that as they drew their circles of devotion, they were hungering for the symmetry and perfection of wholeness and infinity. He must have known that although they may not have heard the Gospel of John where Jesus declared that “God is love,” they were already infused with the hunger for harmony and unity and self gift.
So rather than curse their practices and banish their symbols, Patrick invited not so much a conversion as a confirmation; not so much a dramatic departure from their ideals and practices as an alignment of the universal message of Christ with the universal hunger of the human community in which he preached. He confirmed their goodness and the power of their spiritual search while announcing new ways to bring the divine and the human into a communion of intimacy and everlasting love.
The Catholic Church would do well to follow St. Patrick’s example today. One of the lasting questions of religion is, and always will be, the relationship of faith to culture and now more than ever, we need people of faith who can speak to culture with St. Patrick’s touch. Rather than moralize about the flaws in the world and rather than emphasize disagreements about relatively insignificant questions of behavior, we need religious people who can see in people of all faiths and people of no faith too, the restless longings of the spirit. Rather than castigating people for perceived errors of behavior, we need religious teachers who can discover in our times the working of the spirit and draw us powerfully and more fully into an understanding of its workings within each of us. Rather than preach a hollow metaphysics of static laws, we need religious leaders who can inspire within us something of the fire of an equally beloved figure of holiness, Saint Francis, who guided followers to find the spirit within: “What you are looking for” Francis said, “is what is looking.”
I read recently that churches in Ireland are empty. I hear from countless friends here that they are looking for spiritual food, not the arid moralizing of religion. Is it any wonder? Despite the overwhelming holiness of many religious men and women of deep faith, they’re being drowned out by a church that is too frequently flagellating itself with obsessive concerns about sex and the boundaries of right and wrong. They’re missing the spirit at work in the world.
I’m sure that this St. Patrick’s Day will include all the laughs and merry making we’ve come to expect. But maybe we might recognize that our celebrations today are, in some distant sense, a tribute to the man who didn’t condemn but rather confirmed. Our religious leaders and our politicians too would do well to look at his cross and remember that like the ancient Irish, we are too hungry for divine, hungry to give ourselves to wonder and awe and peace and unity. Remind us that we can and there is no limit to the party that can be unleashed.
Timothy Shriver is an On Faith panelist and chairman and CEO of the Special Olympics.