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.