Recently, I was the grand marshal of the Washington, D.C., St. Patrick’s Day parade. It was a lot of fun. My wife and I rode in front in a horse-drawn carriage with five of our littlest granddaughters. They got a kick out of waving to the crowd and seeing people wave back. They were entranced by the horse.
And we all got to sit on the reviewing stand with the Irish ambassador, who was cheerfully enduring what might have been her fifth parade of the week.
Patrick was a great saint, one who certainly deserves a parade. When I was in college, my friends would toast him with green beer. Some bishops still dispense their flocks from Lenten observances on his feast.
But it is a little odd that we party so hard in honor of a saint who lived such an austere life. Patrick was a contemporary of St. Augustine, though he led a rougher life and was in a different league as a scholar. He was self-conscious about his Latin. "I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education," he said at one point.
Like Augustine, he wrote a "Confession." But St. Patrick’s is not so much a confession of his sins as a confession of faith.
Patrick was born in Roman Britain. When he was about 16, he was kidnapped, taken to the north of Ireland and forced into slavery for six years. At that time, he writes, "I did not know the true God." His family was nominally Christian (he was the son of a deacon), but he had not thought much about his faith.
In captivity, he says, "I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently. … I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy."
In time, he escaped and returned to his parents. He entered the seminary and was ordained a priest. He was pulled all his life toward home. But he heard the voice of the Irish people calling to him in a dream, to return and preach the Gospel.
"It was not by my own grace, but [God’s] that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the Gospel. I bore insults from unbelievers. … I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others."
Patrick labored for 40 years to convert Ireland’s pagan peoples. His was a life filled with Lents and crosses. So what’s up with the parades and the green beer?
I think that’s really the point of Patrick’s "Confession": that faith begets joy. He ends by testifying "in truth and in great joy of heart" that he returned to Ireland for the sake of "the Gospel and God’s promises."
Pope Francis calls it the joy of the Gospel. And it’s a great message to have in the middle of Lent. All of the fasting and abstinence, all of the rules — they are not the faith that we confess. Sure, we observe them. They help us clear away distractions, to see clearly what St. Patrick saw.
But that … that’s a reason to party on. We "cannot be silent," St. Patrick says, "about such great blessings and such a gift." When "we come to know God," we should "praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven."
Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.