Thursday, February 21, 2008

Calendar collision for Irish Catholics.

Today's Boston Globe reports on "a rare clash between St. Patrick's Day and Holy Week" pitting parade organizers against religious authorities in Irish Catholic communities across the United States. This year, March 17th falls on Monday of Holy Week - that is, the day after Palm Sunday - and the optional Memorial of St. Patrick (you heard me right - in liturgical terms, St. Patrick's Day is always a mere option) is accordingly suppressed. (I should note that the Solemnity of St. Joseph falls on Spy Wednesday this year; as a solemnity, the liturgical commemoration of St. Joseph will not be suppressed but will be transferred to Saturday, March 15th, the day before Palm Sunday.) In consequence, some Irish Catholics are a bit frustrated that St. Patrick's Day has to yield to a remembrance of the Lord's Passion. In some Catholic dioceses of the United States, the organizers of annual St. Patrick's Day parades have yielded to the request of local bishops that parades be held early this year in deference to the Church's calendar. In other places, including Boston, St. Patrick's Day parades will be held this year on their normal dates - even if those dates happen to fall on Palm Sunday or during Holy Week.

Given that I'm not Irish and that I don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day, I hope my Irish-American readers will forgive my perplexity at the attitudes of some of their fellows. I respect the desire of Irish-Americans and other distinct ethnic groups to celebrate their cultural heritage, but it strikes me as problematic to accord greater importance to an ethnic feast day than one grants to the most solemn days in the Church calendar. I should say here that I am a big fan of ethnic Catholicism; I do not care for the "melting pot" model of assimilation, and I believe that the preservation of cultural diversity within the Church should be preferred over a move toward a generic "American" style of religious practice. Still, it's worth asking about the role of ethnicity in determining one's sense of religious identity. When ethnicity and religion go hand in hand, can one maintain one's faith if the sense of ethnic identity that sustained that faith is lost? On the same token, is it possible to maintain one's ethnic identity divorced from the faith that long served as a constitutive element of that identity?

The "St. Patrick's Day vs. Holy Week" conflict strikes me as a battle in a larger struggle between conflicting conceptions of ethnic and religious identity. For many Irish-Americans, St. Patrick's Day seems to have become a secular celebration of ethnic pride with little connection to its religious roots. This mentality comes out in a widely-reported comment by Mark Dempsey, the organizer of the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in Columbus, Ohio, which will be held on Monday of Holy Week despite the objections of the diocesan bishop. "It's not a sin to celebrate your Irish culture," Dempsey said. "Actually, you're born Irish first, and then you're baptized Catholic." The logic of Dempsey's statement seems to be that Irish identity is something immutable while Catholic faith is secondary and optional. As America's Jim Martin put it, "You have to wonder what St. Patrick would say to someone who thinks that being Irish is more important than being Catholic."

What seems to be lost on many of those involved in planning St. Patrick's Day parades this year is that their celebration of Irish culture takes place in the context of a Christian saint's feast day, and thus within the larger context of the Church's liturgical year. Rather than gripe about how the Church is interfering with their plans to have fun on St. Patrick's Day, perhaps the organizers could save themselves some trouble by giving their celebration a new name, like "Irish-American Heritage Day." I'm sure that many would be uncomfortable with such a name change, even if it better reflects the contemporary reality of what has become a secular holiday. In any event, the current controversy suggests that actions speak louder than words. AMDG.


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