All About Saint Patrick's Day
Saint Patrick's Day Definition and Summary
Saint Patrick's Day celebrates the Irish bishop and missionary Patrick. He lived in the fifth century and is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. Saint Patrick's Day is a popular holiday in Ireland, the United States, and other countries. Prayers: Saint Patrick's Day Prayers
Liturgical Color(s): Violet (in Lent); White (when celebrated as a solemnity)
Type of Holiday: Commemoration; Holy Day of Obligation and Solemnity (in Ireland only)
Time of Year: March 17
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The life and spirituality of Saint Patrick
Alternate Names: Saint Paddy's Day
Saint Patrick (Latin: Patricius) was a Christian missionary to Ireland, the son of Calpornius and Conchessa. It is likely that he was born in AD 387 and died in AD 493, although the exact dates of these events are uncertain. Nonetheless, evidence suggests Patrick was active as a missionary in Ireland during the latter part of the fifth century.
He was born to a high-ranking family in Roman Britain. At age sixteen, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. While there, he learned the Celtic language. After six years, he escaped and returned to his family in Britain. There, he entered the Church and eventually became a bishop, being ordained by St. Germanus, bishop of Auxerre. Patrick later returned to Ireland as a missionary, working in the northern and western areas of the country.
As a missionary, Patrick baptized thousands, ordained many priests, and converted wealthy men and women to the faith, many of whom became monks and nuns. He is often associated with Saint Brigid, another patron of Ireland, who was possibly an Irish abbess. He set up an Episcopal administration (bishops, priests, and deacons) in Ireland and led a monastic lifestyle. Although not a martyr or confessor, Saint Patrick nonetheless encountered great hostility and was often held a prisoner for his deeds in Ireland. At one point some of his enemies decreed his death, but the sentence was never carried out.
Perhaps because of these difficult incidents, he is honored as a martyr in a few ancient martyrologies. The popular Breastplate of Saint Patrick, an old Irish hymn, is attributed to Saint Patrick, although scholars date it to the eighth century on linguistic grounds. For the words to this beautiful hymn, visit our Saint Patrick's Day Prayers page.
Many scholars believe that much of the life and actions of Saint Palladius have been subsumed into the legend of Saint Patrick. Palladius was a Roman deacon who persuaded Pope Celestine I to send Saint Germanus to stamp out the Pelagian heresy in Britain. Later, according to fifth century writer Saint Prosper of Aquitaine, Pope Celestine sent Palladius to be the first bishop of the Irish, before Patrick arrived as a bishop.
Seventh century accounts of Saint Patrick portray Palladius as an unsuccessful missionary who abandoned his task (or perhaps died), paving the way for the work of Saint Patrick. Whatever the role of Saint Palladius in spreading Christianity to Ireland, Saint Patrick apparently made a deeper impression upon the Irish people than did Palladius, and some of the acts of Palladius became conflated with those of Saint Patrick in later historical accounts. However, even if this is true, it does not cast doubt upon the saintliness of Patrick, whose life and actions have been approved by the Church.
Saint Patrick's Day History
Saint Patrick's Day is observed on March 17, the date of Patrick's death. This feast always falls during Lent and is a commemoration, meaning that other, more important, feasts and fasts take liturgical precedence over this holiday. This is why in some years, the official Catholic observance of the holiday falls on a date other than March 17. Because the commemoration always falls during Lent, the liturgical color of Saint Patrick's Day is violet. However, when celebrated as a solemnity (for example, in Ireland), the liturgical color is white. Since Saint Patrick is associated with Ireland, the "Emerald Isle," the color popularly associated with his holiday is green. However, oddly enough, at one time blue was the color commonly associated with Saint Patrick's Day.
While Saint Patrick's Day has been celebrated since the first millennium in Ireland, it is due to the influence of Franciscan Luke Wadding in the early 17th century that the feast is on the general calendar of the universal Church. While originally only a religious holiday, Saint Patrick's Day has developed into a popular secular holiday in many countries, including Ireland (where it is a federal holiday) and the United States, which has a large Irish-American population. One popular custom is Saint Patrick's Day parades, which originated in the United States. The first known parade occurred in 1737 in Boston. Another popular custom is eating green foods (including those that have been dyed green, e.g. green beer). Another custom is wearing some item of green clothing, and pinching those who do not. Partying is also associated with Saint Patrick's Day, although the Church does not sanction parties that lead to sinful behavior.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions, Customs, and Symbols
Traditions and Customs: Wearing green clothing, eating green food/drinking green drinks, eating corned beef and cabbage, having Irish-themed celebrations (in the US)
Symbols The color green, shamrock (symbol of the trinity), harp, celtic cross
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is Saint Patrick a patron saint? Yes. In fact, Saint Patrick is a very popular patron saint. He is the patron saint of various dioceses and archdioceses, including Adelaide (Australia), Armagh (Ireland), Auckland (New Zealand), Ballarat (Australia), Boston (USA), Burlington (Vermont, USA), Cape Town (South Africa), Dromore (Ireland), Erie (Pennsylvania, USA), Fort Worth (Texas, USA), Harrisburg (Pennsylvania, USA), Kilmore (Ireland), Melbourne (Australia), Mymensingh (Bangladesh), New York (USA), Poona (India), and Sacramento (California, USA). He is also the patron of the countries of Ireland and Nigeria. He is the patron of engineers, excluded persons, and ophidiophobics (those who fear snakes). He is the patron saint against snakes, fear of snakes, and snake bites.
2. Why does the Catholic Church sometimes change the date of Saint Patrick's Day? While many might assume that Saint Patrick's Day is an extremely important Catholic holiday because of the way it is celebrated in Ireland and the US, liturgically, it is merely a commemoration, which means that other, more important Church holidays often take precedence. This means that in most dioceses and regions, if Saint Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday, or during Holy Week, it will be translated to another date, if it is even observed at all. Despite the importance attached to Saint Patrick's Day, other celebrations have more liturgical weight.
3. Why is Saint Patrick associated with snakes? Legends suggest that Saint Patrick drove out snakes from Ireland, although scientific evidence suggests that snakes did not exist in post-glacial Ireland. Some scholars believe that the "snakes" that Saint Patrick drove out are a metaphor for the serpent symbolism of Druids who inhabited Ireland during Patrick's time, or even heretical beliefs, e.g. Pelagianism. Saint Patrick probably did have a role in driving out Druid and Pelagian influence in Ireland.
4. What is Saint Patrick's Purgatory? Since the 12th century, Saint Patrick's Purgatory has been a place of pilgrimage on Station Island, Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, in Ireland. This is where Christ is said to have revealed to Saint Patrick the entrance to purgatory and the earthly paradise. The earliest recorded visit to Saint Patrick's Purgatory is by an Irish knight named Owein around AD 1146. Saint Patrick's Purgatory became a popular pilgrimage site for knightly pilgrims from different countries in the 14th and 15th centuries. Pilgrims still visit the island, which now has a modern basilica. While an interesting story, it is unlikely that Saint Patrick ever claimed to have found the "entrance" to purgatory at this site, as the material surrounding this claim is legendary. For more information about visiting Saint Patrick's Purgatory, visit the Lough Derg website.