So there I was, at a free (!) beer tasting at the Olympic Tavern in Rockford, Illinois, and all I could think about was poor old Saint Patrick. I suppose it was inevitable; after all, the beer tasting was six weeks to the day before Saint Patrick's Day, and one of the beers the Olympic Tavern was serving was Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. As I sipped the exceedingly small sample of this extraordinary beer (there were only 20 cases of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout in all of Rockford, a city of 150,000 people), I started to wonder why the dear bishop, of whom there are no stories involving tippling, much less drunkenness, had become identified with a yearly festival of excess.
It would be politically incorrect, of course, to suggest that the exuberant imbibing that takes place on Saint Patrick's Day has anything to do with a certain propensity of the Irish for beer and whiskey. More importantly, I don't think that national traits are the determining factor in this case; after all, the French are quite fond of their wine, but they don't run through cases of it every year on the feast day of Saint Joan of Arc.
Rather, I suspect that the reason Saint Patrick's Day has been taken to heart by so many Catholics (and not just the Irish) is because it falls, every year, in the season of Lent. While the Lenten fast is no longer as strict as in centuries past, Saint Patrick's Day still provides an excuse for easing up on our Lenten discipline just a wee bit (or perhaps more than a wee bit). Even today, in dioceses with large numbers of Catholics of Irish descent, if Saint Patrick's Day falls on a Friday bishops routinely dispense the faithful from the obligation to abstain from meat, so that they can enjoy their corned beef—accompanied, of course, by a Guinness or three, and maybe a shot of whiskey.
In that sense, the popular celebration of Saint Patrick's Day is much like that of Mardi Gras. It may not be Catholic per se, but it has its roots in one of the oldest Catholic customs—the observance of Lent.
(Saint Patrick in a detail from a bronze door on Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York City. Photo © Scott P. Richert)