The 2000 U.S. Census reported 30 million Americans, or 10.8 percent of the population, claim Irish ancestry. That may be one reason that St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in the US. But, the day surely “ain’t” what it used to be – and it probably would shock the good saint himself to see what happens on the day set aside to honor him. There are parades all over the nation, runs and walks, marathons and festivals, Scottish games and pub openings. Some are a pretext for anything but the saintly.
Patrick might be surprised, probably disappointed.
Rome was in many ways like present day America. It had an abundance of immigrants – Visigoths, Franks, Anglos, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Lombards and Vandals. They came so fast they neither learned the Latin language or adopted the empire’s culture. The Roman military was overtaxed with foreign conflicts. It’s government was heavy with bureaucracy. The tax burden was severe, but necessary to fund two great government expenses – military operations and welfare programs. It was said that all of Rome was on welfare with citizens given free bread. One Roman commented: “Those who live at the expense of the public funds are more numerous than those who provide them.” Rome’s version of the IRS was characterized as “more terrible than the enemy.” The Empire had developed a significant trade deficit. It had outsourced grain production to North Africa.
They had no idea how close their empire was to collapse. The population had an entitlement mentality, demanding “bread and circuses.” Their entertainment had turned violent. Death in was made a sport in the coliseums. Unwanted infants died by exposure. Infidelity was common. Sexual immorality normal. Homosexuality was widely practiced in Roman bath houses and gymnasiums (“gymn” is the Greek word for naked). Salvian, the historian wrote, “The Goths lie, but are chaste; the Franks lie, but are generous; the Saxons are savage in cruelty … but are admirable in chastity. … What hope can there be for the Romans when the barbarians are more pure than they?” Salvian described the empire as having no cities “free of evil dens.” In the end he would say, “Let nobody think otherwise. The vices of our bad lives have alone conquered us.”
It was in the midst of this cultural decline, that Patrick was born in the Roman province of Britain, between A.D. 387 and A.D. 415. While a teenager, Patrick’s community was left unguarded. Roman legions withdrew to defend Rome. Unprotected, Britain was attacked by raiders. Thousands were taken captive.
Patrick himself was captured and sold as a slave in Ireland, then ruled by the Druids. The Druids were riddled with occult notions believing that forests were inhabited by spirits. From them come the legends of elves and leprechauns. To satisfy these spirits, the pagan Druids sacrificed human prisoners to the war gods and newborns to the harvest gods.
Patrick, as a slave, was given to the work of a shepherd. In the pastures, his love and fear of God grew mightily. In a single day, he recalls, “I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night.” He would rise before day-break, plough through snow and cold weather, though rain, and find a place of prayer.
In time, Patrick confronted the Druids, converted chieftains and introduced them to the the Trinity. A dozen times Patrick faced life-threatening situations, “They eagerly wished to kill me; but my time had not yet come. … they put us in irons and … the Lord delivered me. … Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, or whatever it may be; but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven.”
He baptized 120,000 people and founded 300 churches. He found Ireland all heathen, and left if all Christian. Patrick died March 17, around A.D. 461. In the century following his death, Irish missionaries went to Britain to evangelize the Scots and Picts. An Irish missionary named Columbanus (A.D. 543-615) traveled Europe and evangelized the tribes which overran the Roman Empire, founding nearly 100 monasteries as far south as Italy. A thousand years later, Scot-Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics fled the British Empire for American colonies to gain political and religious freedom.
Ten U.S. presidents had Irish ancestors: Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. St. Patrick might worry about some of them too!