It’s Saint Patrick’s Day! The day we celebrate a British missionary to Ireland with green beer and Irish Pride parades. It’s not a holiday that meant a lot to me, growing up. However, my interest in Saint Patrick’s day has grown over the past few years. Partly because of its missional implications for a college town like Kent (where Saint Patrick’s Day and “Fake Paddy’s Day” on the Saturday preceding the official holiday are major cultural events). Partly because of greater understanding of the ways that the Catholic / Protestant divide has played out over the last couple centuries. And partly because of learning about my own (loose) connections to the culture and history surrounding Saint Patrick.
COVID complicates the missional part of Saint Patrick’s celebrations. Even if I wasn’t currently in quarantine, I wouldn’t be out in the streets celebrating. Crowded bars and downtown sidewalks are great places to make new friends in most years. With all the current public health precautions, however, it’s just not the right time and place. It doesn’t feel like responsible church leadership to send more people into that mix. Even for the sake of sharing the Gospel. Saint Patrick himself needed to bide his time, taking fifteen years to study and prepare, before traveling to Ireland as a missionary. So we shouldn’t feel ashamed to do the same under our current, extraordinary, circumstances. I do love the example of Saint Patrick, though. He was a role model for taking initiative, building cultural bridges, and faithfully following God’s call.
Appreciation for Catholicism
My appreciation for Saint Patrick has also increased because of my increased appreciation for the Catholic Church. Growing up, I think the cultural divide between Catholics and Protestants was just bigger. Maybe partly because of time (growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the third generation after most of my ancestors immigrated). Maybe partly because of location (the religious distinctions seem to be a bigger deal in the Upper Midwest, where I lived until age ten). Whatever the circumstances, I just didn’t know many Catholics. And I had a vague sense that I wasn’t supposed to trust them. Their religious beliefs and practices were different. They went to different schools. They ate different foods and celebrated different holidays. “Different” felt “dodgy,” though I can’t explain it much more than that.
As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve learned how much of the Catholic / Protestant divide has been a political divide as much as (if not more than) a religious divide. My school social studies classes taught me about American immigration policy and a history of Republican, Northern, White, Protestants disparaging Democratic, Southern, Immigrant, Catholics for Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion. My years in the Netherlands helped me to learn about the Eighty Years War between Spanish Catholics and Dutch Protestants, along with other, similar conflicts across Europe. I’ve also learned that the history of Ireland is complicated by colonialism, ethnocentrism, economics, and politics, just as much as it’s complicated by religion. I’ve learned about the actual theological differences between the Catholic Church and other branches of Christianity (which are not as vast as I used to think they were). And, perhaps most significantly, I’ve gotten to know Catholics as friends.
Last but not least, I’ve come to appreciate Saint Patrick’s Day because I’ve developed a better understanding of my own ancestry. My Grandma Asp described her ancestry as “Scotch-Irish Dutch.” Which, of course, isn’t a direct path to claiming my own Irish identity. Even if we’re ready to count “Scotch-Irish” as “Irish,” I have to admit that it’s pretty diluted. Tracing my lineage, I think I’m actually just 1/32nd “Scotch-Irish.” 3.125 percent. Still, there’s at least some genetic connection to some segment of the Celtic population in the British Isles.
The history of the “Scotch-Irish” population in the United States is a long and interesting one. I’m not going to get too deep into it, here. But the long and the short of it is that I feel I can honestly claim at least some ethnic / cultural / genetic connection to Saint Patrick and/or the Celtic peoples of Ireland. And I think that’s enough to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.