On this day in 1762, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held, but not in Ireland. Irish soldiers stationed in colonial New York City organized the first procession. Though St. Patrick parades are held in over 100 U.S. cities every year, the New York event is considered the grandest. Devoid of floats and vehicles, the parade is a long line of military units, bagpipers, high school bands and politicians—over 150,000 participants in all with over 2 million spectators lining the streets. The New York Archbishop usually reviews the parade on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Because of coronavirus concerns, officials in New York and Philadelphia canceled their parades this year, the largest such events in the U.S.
Why all the fuss? March 17 is the feast day of a man born in Britain, but enslaved in Ireland as a teenager. After six years of bondage, the young man escaped, but an angel in a dream told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. Seasoned by 15 years of religious training, Patrick was finally ordained a priest and commissioned to the Emerald Isle. Though the story of him driving out the snakes is just that – a story – we do know that St. Patrick converted most of Ireland to Catholicism. He did it not by coercion, but by welding Irish practices and beliefs to Christianity. For instance, he celebrated Easter by igniting bonfires, previously identified with pagan celebrations. One legend states that Patrick used a three-leaved shamrock – sacred to the Druids – to explain the concept of the Trinity. There are also accounts of Patrick making crosses that included the sun, a Druidic symbol. Today the Celtic cross is a popular symbol throughout the Christian world.
Patrick was following the example of Paul the Apostle, who wrote that he had become all things to all people in order to win some to Christ. “To the Jews, I became like a Jew,” Paul explained. “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law.”
Some Christians tend to see little good in non-Christian religions. They nitpick the doctrines of other belief-systems and sometimes even brand them as satanic. What we often miss is the basic spiritual yearning of all people, no matter what their creeds might be. It’s easier to condemn another’s faith (or lack thereof) than to engage them in love and creativity. The latter method has a better chance of bearing fruit than the former.