The man behind the myth

Saint: Sixteen hundred years ago, a young British-born Roman converted the people of Ireland to Christianity.

March 17, 2000|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's said that on St. Patrick's Day everybody is a little bit Irish. With March 17 as much a secular holiday as a religious one, people celebrate with parades, in a pub and in church services.

But few can separate the facts of St. Patrick's life from fiction.

"What's unfortunate is that often the legends about St. Patrick don't do him justice," says Monsignor Joseph Luca of St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville. "For example, the legend that he drove the snakes out of Ireland is just a legend.

"What he should be most remembered for is that he brought Ireland to the status of a Christian nation. His impact was immense."

Luca added, "He was a fiery preacher who organized the Catholic Church in Ireland, establishing many schools, churches and parishes. His strengths were his enthusiasm, his zeal and his organizational ability. Those leadership qualities are what set him apart to single-handedly convert a nation."

Most accounts place St. Patrick's birth around 385 in Britain. His parents, Calpurnius and Conchessa, were Romans in charge of the colonies.

About the age of 16, St. Patrick was captured by Irish marauders and taken to Ireland as a slave. It is believed that during his captivity, his love of God grew as he was forced to tend sheep for six bleak years. At this time, Ireland was a land of pagans.

In his spiritual autobiography, "Confessio," St. Patrick describes his escape from captors after hearing God tell him in a dream to flee Ireland by going to the coast. There he found sailors who returned him to his family. Once home, Patrick began studying for the priesthood and was later ordained a bishop.

Patrick wrote of another dream in which he said he was deeply moved by the voices of the Irish people who called to him, "We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more."

He returned to Ireland, where he spent 40 years preaching the Gospel across the Emerald Isle. The patron saint of Ireland died in the last half of the 5th century.

"In some countries, when missionaries Christianized the people, at times they did not always respect the culture, the rites or the customs of the people," said Sister Mary McFadden of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ellicott City. "It's said that St. Patrick tried to teach difficult concepts using nature, which was sacred to the Druids. He took one shamrock and asked, `How many leaves does it have? It has three leaves.' From those three leaves he was able to teach the doctrine of the Trinity -- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in one."

Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, has granted a dispensation from the law of abstinence today in observance of the feast of St. Patrick. This allows Catholics to enjoy a traditional Irish dinner of corned beef and cabbage during what would normally be a meatless Friday during Lent.

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