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JOHN KIERAN: St. Patrick's Day honors 'father' of Christianity in Ireland

Sunday, the world will celebrate St. Patrick's Day. People in cities and towns all over the globe will revel in green. Indeed, the extent of the holiday festivities in some foreign cities far exceeds those in the place of origin.

Strangely, cities like Savannah can boast of a larger St. Patrick's Day parade than that held in Dublin, Ireland. Indeed, I was somewhat shocked when I first experienced this holiday in the U.S. some 45 years ago.

St. Patrick is patron of Ireland, a small country half the size of Georgia. Tradition maintains that in the year 432 A.D. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. He became a Christian in England and later felt a deep calling to return to Ireland, where once he was held as a slave, and teach Christ to the Hibernian race.

So successful was the evangelist Patrick that by the time of his death, thousands were won over from paganism and nature gods.

In his lifetime, Patrick securely established Christianity in Ireland. The Church was organized, bishops ordained, thousands converted and baptized. He preached the gospel relentlessly and with great success. He was "the first human being in the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery," says the author, Thomas Cahill.

Within 100 years of Ireland's conversion, Irish missionaries had fanned out all over Europe, carrying out the vision of their spiritual father. Evidence of this is seen in the many cities founded as monasteries by Irish monks like Luxeuil, Liege, Regensburg, Salzburg, Vienna, St. Gall and Bobbie to name a few.

Hence, Ireland became known as The Isle of Saints and Scholars.

Over the centuries, the missionary spirit enkindled by Patrick has endured. Missionaries and millions of emigrant Irish, have brought the St. Patrick's Day tradition with them wherever they go.

My childhood memories recall March 17 as a "church day." We all went to Mass and gave God thanks for the gift of faith brought to our island by Patrick. The service ended with a rousing singing of the hymn: "Hail glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our isle ..."

The day before, we kids meticulously "gathered the shamrock," carefully pulling pieces of the small-leafed clover that is common in Irish lawns. These we made into little bunches and attached to our jackets with safety pins. Not to wear the shamrock on March 17 was to dishonor Patrick!

The threefold leaf has a deep religious tradition. It is said, when Patrick was teaching on the Trinity -- not a simple matter at any time -- he picked up a piece of shamrock and used the figure of three leaves on one stem to explain that in God there are three persons, but only one God.

No doubt Patrick would be pleased to see the zillions of shamrocks displayed at this time of year. But would he not wonder why so many people use the shamrock and yet not understand its symbolism?

St. Patrick's Day is firstly about a man -- a man from another country who gave up everything to dedicate his life to evangelizing the Irish for Christ. He is the "father" of Christianity in Ireland. He is revered and remembered by his simple words and illustrative deeds enshrined in his famous prayer:

"I arise today through God's strength to pilot me, God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to see before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's host to secure me --

Against snares of devils, Against temptations, and vices, Against inclinations of nature, Against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and near, alone and in a crowd --

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise, 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,

Salvation is of the Lord ... Salvation is of the Christ.

May your salvation, O Lord, be ever with us. Amen."

Father John C. Kieran is pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers.