15 March 2008

Celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day

An icon of Saint Patrick from the exhibition of Greek icons currently running at the Gordon Gallery in Derry

Patrick Comerford

My Greek friends are great at celebrating their name days. But, should I be celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day today (Saturday), or on Monday? Or are you confused by the changes in Church calendar, which appear to have been ignored by the organisers of parades, and the fleet of cabinet ministers dispatched across the globe?

In an editorial on the conflicts between Saint Patrick’s Day and Holy Week, the Church of Ireland Gazette says this weekend:

“There is confusion throughout the length and breadth of the island this weekend as people mark the first holiday weekend of the year, but wonder when they should be celebrating St Patrick’s Day.

“Because 17th March this year falls on the Monday in Holy Week, the bishops of both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church agreed that religious celebrations for St Patrick’s Day would take place two days earlier, with the saint being honoured instead on Saturday 15th March.

“Liturgists point out that the days of Holy Week and Easter Week rank above all others, and liturgical norms require a feast day in those two weeks to be moved to the earliest available date after Easter. This year, that available date is 1st April, because the Annunciation is being moved to 31st March. And so, 15th March became a better option for St Patrick’s Day, with many hoping any conflict with secular and civic events could be minimised.

“However, there are no sensitivities in secular civic society when it comes to the significance of Holy Week. St Patrick’s Day parades are going ahead in many cities, towns and villages on Monday, which remains an official holiday – although the London parade takes place on Sunday, and in many cities in the United States, including Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, St Louis and Seattle, they’ve managed to get it right, moving their parades to Saturday. Even in Savannah – where they have the largest attendance in the world at a St Patrick’s Day parade – religious sensitivities inspired all involved to move the parade to Friday 14th March.

“This is the first time since 1913 that St Patrick’s Day falls in Holy Week, and the first time it has been moved in the Church calendar since 1940 – when 17th March was Palm Sunday and St Patrick’s Day was marked on 3rd April. This coincidence will not happen again for another 152 years, when St Patrick’s Day will fall in Holy Week once again in 2160.

“Writing in the Word magazine, Prof. Vincent Twomey of Maynooth said that ‘it is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival.’ He questioned the need for ‘mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry,’ and argued that ‘it is time to bring the piety and the fun together.’ Admittedly, this year’s change in the Church calendar does not provide this opportunity. But perhaps it does provide a timely reminder for Christians in Ireland today that the central truths of the faith St Patrick brought to this island – the life, passion, death and Resurrection of Christ – are more important than any commemoration – secular, civic or religious – of the saint’s life.”

And to that I say: “Amen” and “Hear, hear.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

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