loren Eric Swanson: Happy St. Patrick's Day

Friday, March 17, 2006

Happy St. Patrick's Day

There's a reason we in America celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Unlike Latin American Catholicism, it was the Irish, not the Spaniards, French or Italians who shaped what Catholicism would be like in the United States. (From a book summary I wrote up a couple years ago):
The American Catholic
By: Charles R. Morris
First Vintage Books, 1997

The American Catholic is nothing short of a remarkable volume of how the Catholic Church has been shaped by America and how America has been shaped by the Catholic Church. Morris provides an engaging description of the Church’s humble beginnings in America buttressed by the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Irish during the potato famine of the nineteenth century. Packed into “coffin ships” they arrived in America in waves where they migrated to the cities looking for work. Shaped by the reforms of hierarchical Catholicism of Ireland’s Cardinal, Paul Cullin, in the latter half on the 1800’s, America became the Church’s mission field to the Irish immigrants. A shaping force in the role of Irish Catholics was their migration to the cities where they could be organized, led and managed. The Irish Catholic Church formed the DNA of American Catholicism to which every other succeeding ethnic migration, be they Italians, Germans or Poles, had to accommodate to. Irish composed the largest percentage (90% in the latter part of the 19th century) of those in seminary. Consequently Irish immigrants and their descendents would form the largest percentage of priests and bishops in America. America did not accommodate quickly to the influx of Irish or the influence of the Church but the Church was here to stay.

There are a couple of good books to look at to understand St. Patrick. A 121 page gem by George Hunter called The Celtic Way of Evangelism is most worthy. Hunter lauds Patrick, who at 16 was captured from his Britanic home and taken to Ireland to be a herdsman for an Irish druid king. It was in Ireland that his conversion was complete. One night, six years into his captivity, the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Your ship awaits you" and he made the 200 mile journey to the coast and sure enough he boarded the ship for the continent. Several years later he had recurring dreams of people who he knew in Ireland, who were saying, "Return and walk among us." And so he did. In 27 years of ministry he planted some 700 churches and ordained a thousand priests. In the years to follow, according to Hunter, "Patrick's movement blanketed the island: 'In Ireland alond ehter are more thatn 6,000 place names containing the element Cill--the old Gaelic word for church'" (p. 36).

The other book is a Classic called How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Cahill points out that after Constantine's edict of Milan, it was politically advantageous to become a Christian. Not so in Ireland since Ireland was never under Rome's control or influence so Irish conversion was more genuinely Christian.

Time does not allow us to review other Irish classics like Darby O'Gill and the Little People or Boy's Town so the former will have to do. There are so many other contributions the Irish made, like Lucky Charms Cereal and Irish Spring soap but again they are secondary to Patrick.

Tonight we'll be havin' Corn Beef and Cabbage and help celebrate the contributions of Patrick and our Irish friends. To close...an Irish blessing:

May there always be work for your hands to do;
May your purse always hold a coin or two;
May the sun always shine on your windowpane;
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain;
May the hand of a friend always be near you;
May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.



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