Saint Patrick

On Tuesday, March 17, everyone’s Irish. Or at least there will be millions proclaiming to be — often loudly, obnoxiously and drunkenly.

The fountains and rivers in historic Savannah, Ga., will flow green for a celebration of St. Patrick’s Day that dates back to 1813. Streets from New York City to Moscow, Sydney to Munich will be choked with parade floats and thousands of revelers dressed in tall green hats and "Kiss Me, I’m Irish" T-shirts. Elementary school kids across the country will giddily pinch anyone who forgot to wear something green. Bars ranging from Applebee’s to those sporting actual Irish names will be draped with shamrock-covered banners proclaiming $1 Guinness.

All told, it’s a rather odd way to celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, who is credited with spreading Christianity to pagans of Ireland.

"It’s unfortunate that his story is largely lost or overlooked amid all the drinking," said Father Bryan Lowe, priest of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Anniston. "That’s certainly not what St. Patrick was about."

To the uninitiated, the role of saints is often misunderstood.

"Saints are examples of heroic virtue," Lowe explained. "They’re people who lived holy lives in which they made God a priority."

Donald Prudlo, an associate professor of ancient and medieval history at Jacksonville State University, added that saints in the Catholic traditions are "not intended as a replacement for Christ," but rather serve as intercessors, bridging the gap between the faithful and the divine.

"The idea of approaching Christ is relatively new," Prudlo said. "It came with the Protestant Reformation. Christ was going to come to judge the world, and in a certain sense that was terrifying, so Christians needed an intermediary to advocate for them before Christ."

The actual number of saints is open for debate, with estimates ranging from 811 to more than 80,000.

There are patron saints for athletes (St. Sebastian), dogs (St. Roch), the Internet (St. Isidore of Seville), mothers (St. Monica), schools (St. Thomas Aquinas), toothaches (St. Apollonia) and writers (St. Francis de Sales). Many countries also have patron saints, including the Dominican Republic (St. Dominic), France (St. Joan of Arc) and North Africa (St. Cyprian).

Saints can humanize faith and sacrifice, fostering a sense of connectedness. Father Lowe has long felt a personal attachment to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, known as "the Little Flower."

"Her notion of holiness and spirituality was so simple and straightforward that it always resonated," Lowe said. "And because she only died about 100 years ago, she’s rather contemporary."

Yet, of the hundreds — potentially thousands — of saints, only a handful have a universal following. While the likes of St. Patrick, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Christopher are venerated even in the secular world, most saints remain obscure. Their stories of faith, devotion, miracles and, often, martyrdom are known only to the small bands of believers who celebrate their feast days.

"The more popular saints are considered the most powerful," Prudlo said. "They’re especially powerful before God, so, like a good lawyer, they’re known for getting results."

Even among the more powerful and recognized, few inspire such celebrations as those of St. Valentine, whose origin is murky at best; St. Nicholas, who was pulled into the Christmas celebration despite little association with the actual holiday; and St. Patrick, whose March 17th feast day has evolved into a secular celebration of Irish heritage.

The Christian calendar is a cycle of fasts and feasts, the feast being a celebration of the breaking of the fast. One of the reasons that St. Patrick’s Day has spilled out into such a celebration is because it falls in the middle of Lent, a time when people are "giving up" things like certain foods and alcohol. But on St. Patrick’s Day, the Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol are lifted for the day.

"It’s a good excuse to have a good time," Prudlo said. "Though I’m not sure St. Patrick would approve."

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Why so many saints?

In rural France, St. Guinefort was named the patron saint of infants after saving his master’s baby from a snake. St. Guinefort was a dog — specifically, a greyhound — and there were miracles reported at his grave.

Before the formal canonization process began in the 15th century, many saints were proclaimed by popular approval. This was a much faster process, but unfortunately many of the saints so named were based on legends, pagan myths or even other religions.

In 1969, the Catholic Church studied all the saints on its calendar for historical evidence of their existence. Scholars were unable to find evidence that many of these saints existed. The lives of such well-known figures as St. George, St. Valentine and St. Christopher were based either on legends that predated Christianity, or were entirely fictionalized.

The prospect of venerating dogs or folk heroes bothered church leaders, and during the Middle Ages popes began claiming canonization was a power solely of their office.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V integrated the sainthood process into the papal bureaucracy, charging the Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies with vetting potential saints.

In 1983, John Paul II eliminated the office of Promoter of the Faith — also known as the Devil’s Advocate — a canon lawyer tasked with arguing against a person’s possible canonization. Because of this change, John Paul II was able to canonize more saints than the popes from the previous 500 years combined.