Recently, two members of the GoodKind team, Chris Pappalardo and Brian Turney (our resident Irishman) sat down to discuss all things St. Patrick's Day—it's origins, the man behind the holiday, and why you should celebrate.
Here's a snapshot of the conversation they had. We hope it stirs you up to engage with God and one another in a new way this season. And if you'd like, check out the original conversation on The GoodKind podcast on Apple or Spotify.
Chris: So, Brian, let's start with a little level-setting before we get rolling on St. Patrick's Day, specifically. We touched briefly on this in our last Habits and Holidays podcast, but some people don't have context for Patrick. So let's start there. Patrick was an actual person a very long time ago. (That's a good historical statement, yeah?) We're looking at the 4th century AD.
Brian: Yep, 389 to 465.
Chris: With ancient dates like this, there is a little fuziness, but that's the range we're looking at. And here's the fun fact that most people don't know. Patrick wasn't Irish, he was English. Around when he was 16, he was sailing and was kidnapped by some Irish pirates. He was brought back to Ireland and was a servant, or slave, there for about 6 years. He escaped, was able to go back to England, where he became a Christian, and began pastoring a local area there. Until he had a vision telling him to go back to the people who had kidnapped him and bring the gospel to the island of Ireland. I just think that's remarkable—for someone who was enslaved there, to go back, obey the call, and spend the rest of his life in Ireland telling people about Jesus. And, according to history, he is the one to bring the Christian message to the island. He's been celebrated there ever since. St. Patrick's Day came probably more than a thousand years later as an official day, but he's been venerated there as a saint for centuries and centuries. March 17th is chosen as the date of his death. We're not exactly certain of the date, but that's when we commemorate him. And that's our guy, Patrick.
Brian: It's such an interesting story. So powerful about grace and reconciliation, and just the power of the gospel to change someone's life to go back to the country that enslaved him. And it's kind of a flip on other mainstream holidays. For instance, Christmas and Easter started as pagan celebrations and that Christians turned it into more spiritual and holy days. And this is sort of the opposite. In the U.S. at least, St. Patrick's Day has mostly become about drinking and debauchery and ridiculousness. It's an interesting thing to try to reclaim. To say, "Hey, this is a really cool guy and more people need to know about him."
Chris: So what's the Christian way of reclaiming Patrick? Start by not getting sloppy drunk?
Brian: Yeah, that'd be a good start, ha. And I don't want to be that dude who says, "Don't wear green. Don't pinch people." But rather, how do you infuse some meaning into a cool church holiday. A lot of it ties into Protestantism and Evangelicalism and our dismissal of some of early church history stuff that we tend to shy away from a little bit. I think there's something to be said about connecting with our church fathers and seeing the ways that the gospel has moved in and through people over time. So this is one of those guys who I think is worth a study. Worth remembering and celebrating in our church rhythms and calendar.
Chris: I'm wracking my brain, and I don't think I've ever experienced an overtly Christian version of St. Patrick's Day. It's never been mentioned in church. Maybe if it fell on a Sunday, someone mentioned wearing green. But it's interesting to think about what it would look like to bring this back into historical Christian rhythms.
Brian: According to ancestry, I am 43% Irish. I did the DNA test a couple years ago. (Also 18% Scottish, 24% England and Northwestern Europe, and a little big of Swedish and Danish.) My grandmother was a very faithful Irish Catholic who loved Jesus. And I think she had a direct connection to her Irish ancestors. So I grew up with a little bit more emphasis on the Irish part of the holiday. But I think this is something where you don't have to be Irish to commemorate and celebrate as a Christian. But this is a holiday that means a lot of me. And it's something I try to incorporate into my family's rhythms. One of the things we did growing up was the cabbage and corned beef, steamed potatoes and Irish soda bread meal, and we've tried to replicate that with our kids a little bit.
Chris: Do they like it?
Brian: They do ok with it, yeah. I mean, it's not great food. But soda bread is so good with the raisins in it. Sprouts makes a great one by the way, if you have one nearby. So they can get into it once a year. We're not asking too much, I feel like, for one day, ha.
Chris: It's true. I like corned beef! But I admit I probably did not like it when I was 7.
Brian: So yeah, we've done that. And having a meal like that is special. And there's a book, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. And it has a daily liturgy you can go through. They have one on March 17th for St. Patrick, the famous, "Christ before me, Christ behind me..." So I think taking some time to pray that prayer and sharing with your kids who that guy was and how God used him to spread his kingdom is a great rhythm to do each year.
Chris: How would you make that really practical? Before dinner, would you read the prayer from the book? Is it 90 seconds or less?
Brian: Yeah, so this book, specifically, (and I'm sure there are other great resources available) starts with a little bio, similar to what you did here, Chris, to kind of center you and give you the background on who Patrick was. Then it walks through a liturgy. It's call and response so you can pass the book around. Someone reads the leader part and then there's the whole family part. And it ends with the prayer, "Christ be with me, Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me. Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me. Christ in every eye that sees me. Christ in every ear that hears me." It wraps with that.
Chris: I love that. It's his most famous prayer. And even if you don't have that book, you can easily find the prayer online and read it to your kids. So, Brian, are you ready for a hard pivot here?
Brian: Let's go.
Chris: So Patrick was known for a few things. I want to get your hot takes on whether or not they were good. Historically, the images of him have a shamrock, like a clover, in his hand because he's explaining to the people of Ireland that there aren't many gods, there's one God, and he has three persons. Patrick gets a lot of heat for that today, because he didn't understand the Trinity. What's your take on that? Was he contextualizing well?
Brian: Does anybody understand the Trinity? I mean, it is a complex thing. I think it's helpful. I like it. I'm a big fan of visual cues and imagery for metaphors.
Chris: So he picked it up off the ground and said look. Here's three things that are really one thing. And that's why Ireland is Catholic today, ha.
Brian: He nailed it, haha.
Chris: So here's another one that is less attested. Patrick is the reason there are no snakes in Ireland. He drove all the snakes off the island.
Brian: I've heard something about this. I don't know if that's true.
Chris: It's true that there are not snakes native to Ireland today. I think that part is verifed. The question is, did Patrick do this 1600 years ago?
Brian: Hmm, I mean with God all things are possible, ha. Who am I to judge what God is capable of doing in and through people. I think there could be some validity there.
Chris: If we're being charitable.
Brian: Maybe it's allegorical?
Chris: I think that's probably how it started, right? Snake crusher getting rid of the dominion of darkness and Satan. And the people are like, "Well, look around, do you actually see any snakes here?" Exactly. It's far enough back we can't say he didn't do it. So we'll give him the credit.
Brian: I've got a question for you. What is your heritage? Have you done any DNA work?
Chris: Yeah, my wife did ancestry.com to find a lot of these documents. And she had a similar heritage to yours. A lot of Scottish and Irish, a little mainland Europe as well. But because I am her family member, she was able to hop over and track my side a bit because she was curious. My mom's side has been in the states a long time, some English and German, that sort of thing. But my dad's side is second generation Italian, which I find very interesting. And that's an identity marker I put forward most often. Italians and Irish people share a strong ethnic identity, even in the U.S.
Brian: Growing up in Chicago, there was a large Polish population, and we had off of school for Casimir Pulaski Day, who was a Polish guy and I think he helped in the Revolutionary War. I could be way off here. I don't really know any other part of the country that celebrates it. But, Chicago has the largest Polish population out of Warsaw, Poland, which is interesting. I am curious, I feel like I traditionally have been sort of a hater on the ancestry stuff until I actually did it. And I found a great benefit and curiosity in reconnecting with that part of me—this identity and ancestry. And even a desire to go to Ireland now, I'd like to experience seeing where my people are from. So as you think about our identities and our formation as people, do you feel like that's an important piece? How should we think about that?
Chris: I used to have a hyper-spiritual answer to this, which I think was actually a very bad answer. So, if you go about 10 years back, I think I'd say it really doesn't matter. Your identity in Jesus is all that matters. But now I think that's more of an American, rootless ethos more than it is a Christian one, that "you can make yourself whatever you want to be". That's probably more what was going on in my head, and it's probably not super healthy. So now, I want to push against it. I like being my own self and being unique. Ancestry.com is really popular, and therefore I want to zig when others zag. But I think there's a reason people are curious. And it's tapping into something valuable, which is, our histories do a lot to shape us. For many of us in the United States, that's unknown. For white Americans, that can blend in. It's easy to think "I don't have an ethnicity. I don't have a culture." which isn't the case. I think it's healthy to look back and say, "Which is it? Where am I coming from?" And experientially, I didn't think I cared. And then in 2009 I went on a trip to Tuscany in Italy. And everyone there looked like me, more than usual. And I chatted with a guy, told him my last name was Pappalardo. And I'm used to saying it a few times for folks here. But it turns out there was a familiarity to it that was neat. Turns out he knew a lot of Pappalardos. I didn't get the sense that "I'm home now. This explains everything about me." But it was kind of like meeting your wife's family, or the parents of someone you know really well. You see their mother and their brothers and the picture gets painted in a little bit. So I think there's a lot of value.
Brian: Yes, I love that. I feel like I know just enough to be dangerous about this. But I feel like the concept of "whiteness" strictly in America, losing our ethnic identities is interesting. There's been a lot written about privilege and if we can just stick together against the other people who look like us, then in spite of my Irishness, which used to be discriminated against because we were poor potato farmers coming over to America to survive a famine, I can be better because I'm not them. There's a lot wrapped up in that topic, and I'm not educated enough to speak freely on it. But being curious about where we come from and the things our families have been through and that shared history is a really important piece of understanding who we are today and appreciating what we have. Some of these traditions too, like St. Patrick's Day, are cool ways to share that with the next generation, too, and have something to pass on to them. Especially when it's united with our faith and what Jesus has done.
Chris: You just laid out several cans of worms and left them open for us, ha. But yes. I was recently reading, "How to Inhabit Time" and he says it's important to look at our past, because it not only informs what we come from, but it is also like a bucket—something we carry with us whether we know it or not. So you can do a deep dive on what it means to be white and how you can get in that category or not. But the key principle I think we should all agree on is that our histories are something we carrying into our present moment. And if you know more about that, you can be more faithfully situated where you are.
Brian: Also this brings to mind another tangent. I think about our connection with those that have passed and the people before us. I feel like there is a lot to minimize pain and discomfort, particularly when you don't live around cemeteries anymore. You're family isn't necessarily all buried in the same place down the street anymore. This disconnection from those that have died is really interesting too. I think about Coco and Dia de los Muertos and the connection with those people that have passed. I get jealous of that, and I think it's a really cool rhythm to remember those that have gone before us and how they've impacted us today. The idea in modernity that we "push forward" often means we don't take time to look back to see how that past is with us today and shapes who we are and our experience now.
Chris: Looking back, now, what's something you do with your family on St. Patrick's Day or something else, that you do to make a connection back to the past?
Brian: Yeah, we do the traditional meal of my grandmother to carry some of her history into our present experience. We share the food, have a conversation, and pray together around who St. Patrick was and how we can follow his example.
Chris: I love it. I'm going to try Patrick's prayer and read it to my kids. And I'm going to try out the clover, to see if it's helpful for them in explaining God. I'll get good honest feedback from them. They're great theological critics.
From all of us to all of you, Happy St. Patrick's Day!