St. Patrick vs. Steven Bannon in Rome

St. Patrick Preaching to the Kings. Created by Franz Mayer & Co. in the 19th century. (Photo: Andreas F. Borchert)

The Feast of St. Patrick on March 17, followed two days later by the Feast of St. Joseph, often leads to some good-natured ribbing between Americans of Irish and Italian descent. San Giuseppe might seem to hold rank as a member of the Holy Family, but he does not inspire anything like the nearly $6 billion a year Americans are estimated to spend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. That would be an awful lot of sfingi.

I am celebrating these feasts in Rome this year, where the followers of San Patrizio are in the minority. And yet the St. Patrick’s Day message that Americans are familiar with—a celebration of an immigrant group’s contributions—is very much relevant in Rome, where the backlash over immigration seems to have crippled national politics.

Without saying so, the Irish scholar Father Micheál MacCraith drove that point home in a homily he delivered in St. Isidore’s Church, which is spiritual home of Rome’s Irish Catholic community, located off an elegant stretch of the Via Veneto. MacCraith said that Patrick, a Roman citizen, had to transcend his own antipathy to the Irish to minister to them. “He even calls the Irish barbarians on one occasion,” he said.

He quoted a remark Bill Clinton made last October in Dublin about helping to forge the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland: “The great trick is to own your own identity, embrace your own tribe, but form a community in which what you have in common with those you can’t get away from is more important than your differences. That is all it was.”

The Good Friday Agreement, fragile as it is, remains a rare model for breaking down the tribal barriers that make peace so difficult to achieve. For a long time, even St. Patrick was weaponized in the battles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The great trick is to own your own identity, embrace your own tribe, but form a community in which what you have in common with those you can’t get away from is more important than your differences.

“Both tribes manipulated St. Patrick,” MacCraith said. The Protestants’ version was that Patrick had founded an Irish church that was independent of Rome for centuries—and that their Church of Ireland continued this legacy with a line of bishops going back to Patrick. The Catholic response was “withering,” MacCraith added.

But with the rise of the ecumenical movement in the 1960s, St. Patrick “becomes a source of celebration for all Irish citizens”—a saint who can help both factions cross the barriers between them. Patrick’s example comes through “his constant reaching beyond his own tribal comfort zone,” said MacCraith.

It’s a timely message in Rome, as in many other places. Italy’s March 4 election has left a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be assembled before a new majority government can be appointed. At first glance, the likely solution would be to put together a Steve Bannon-type anti-immigration coalition since the largest vote-getters have an aversion to foreigners in common.

Bannon has been around Rome, advocating a union of the anti-establishment Five Stars Movement, which garnered 32 percent of the vote, with the hard-right League getting 18 percent. “My dream is to see them govern together,” he told the newspaper La Stampa.

Not so easy, though, given that the bulk of the Five Stars Movement’s support is in the poor regions of southern Italy, while the League, formerly known as the Northern League, has a history of attacking the south as a haven for loafers. So the wait continues on whether Italy will build a government based on antipathy for immigrants.

St. Patrick may seem an unlikely patron saint for Italian politics, but the message from this famed citizen of Rome is timely. “Break down your barriers,” as Father MacCraith put it. “Abandon your tribal comfort zones.”

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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