Every year, for one reason or another, there seems to be some sort of controversy surrounding St. Patrick’s Day, or at least the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. The renowned parade in New York City, for example, is a perennial lightning rod for ill-will directed at the Catholic Church, often-times replete with bare-chested gay activists hurling religious epithets from the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the premiere icon of Manhattan Catholicism.
Every seven or so years, when St. Paddy’s Day falls on a Friday in Lent, we hear of the apoplectic reaction of those arguing over whether or not they might have a corned beef sandwich with their green beer in order to celebrate the popular Irish feast day in proper style. Some bishops offer an indult; others do not. Some, such as Cincinnati’s Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, have merely taken the opportunity to remind adult Catholic that they are adults and might consider making the decision for themselves – a rather confusing response, but one that drives home the point that there must be something to get ruffled over after all.
This year a similar controversy has arisen from Toronto to Boston to Dublin: In a rare occurrence, the March 17 feast day falls on the Monday of Holy Week — the next conflict with Holy Week won’t occur until 2160 — and Catholic revelers want to know just how much they can push the envelope without being sacrilegious. Should they take part in the neighborhood pub crawl, or is this too unseemly at a time when the Church is making final preparations for a commemoration of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, without whom there would be no St. Patrick and no St. Patrick’s Day feast?
With incredible foresight, the bishops of Ireland issued a pre-emptive measure over a year ago. After debating the important issue over the course of weeks, the Irish prelates obtained permission from the Vatican to move the feast to the previous Saturday, March 15 – the day before Palm Sunday, a solution that seems reasonable any way you look at it. The U.S. bishops made a similar move, transferring the feast to Friday, the 14th. But the controversy doesn’t end there. The problem is that, although the Church in Ireland and elsewhere has officially moved back the liturgical feast, all the secular celebrations will remain on the “real” St. Patrick’s Day: March 17. Even Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade will be held on that Monday of Holy Week and, in Ireland, that date will remain an official national holiday. Commercial enterprises, especially those that make plenty o’green from St. Paddy’s Day festivities, seem to be following suit. One flippant pub owner in Toronto gave his assurance: “We're not going to change just because Lent came a week early.”
The fact of the matter here is that the Church’s liturgical feast and the secular feast have gone their separate ways. No, not just this year. This is nothing new. This bifurcation occurred many, many years ago. Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish cultural linchpin and not simply another product of the Church’s liturgical calendar. But the fact is: St. Patrick’s Day is indeed part of the liturgical calendar as is Holy Week. Let’s face it: Holy Week is a time of penance and reflection. St. Patrick’s Day is a day of merry-making and good cheer. Quite simply, it’s easy to have the best of both world’s here. Any Catholic worth his weight would realize this and respect the liturgical calendar by moving all related St. Patrick’s Day festivities to the days before Palm Sunday!
So, see you at Murphy’s Pub on March 15. Though I may have a green beer in hand, I’ll still be laying off the corned beef.