Cardinal Wuerl greets members of the O'Neill James School of Irish Dance after a March 17 St. Patrick's Day Mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in downtown Washington.
Cardinal Wuerl greets members of the O'Neill James School of Irish Dance after a March 17 St. Patrick's Day Mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in downtown Washington.

As people walked down 10th street in Washington to St. Patrick’s Church on March 17, they were greeted by Irish dancing, bagpipe music, and men in kilts handing out programs for the Mass celebrating the Solemnity of St. Patrick. Onlookers stopped to clap along, take videos, and in some cases even join in with the dancing.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl was the main celebrant of the Mass, joined by Auxiliary Bishops Barry Knestout and Mario Dorsonville and Bishop-elect Roy Campbell; Msgr. Salvatore Criscuolo, the pastor of St. Patrick’s; Father John McNerney, a visiting priest from Dublin; and several other priests from the Archdiocese of Washington.

Father McNerney, a visiting scholar at The Catholic University of America from University College Dublin, began his homily in Gaelic, the native language of Ireland, before switching back to English to speak about who St. Patrick is for the people of Ireland, and around the world, in 2017.

“Patrick was a person of dialogue, not coercion,” said Father McNerney, pointing out that the saint learned the Irish language and customs when he traveled there to spread Christianity.

St. Patrick knew how to lead the Irish beyond their pagan ways, and “how the Gospel fulfilled them rather than destroyed them as human persons,” Father McNerney continued.

The Irish culture that St. Patrick inherited already contained the seeds of the search for the divine, Father McNerney said, noting an ancient site in Ireland where the early Irish buried their dead, leaving a small space above the doorway that allows the burial sight to light up during the winter solstice.

“The early Irish were searching already for a light in the darkness,” he said. “…There was a restlessness for transcendence among them.”

When St. Patrick encountered the Irish culture, he did not condemn it or tear it down, but used elements of the culture to spread the Gospel, Father McNerney pointed out. In the traditional Irish cross, the circle comes from a pagan symbol signifying movement and nature, and the quadrant within the circle represented north, south, east, and west. St. Patrick placed the figure of Christ on top of the pagan symbol to tell the Irish, “Christ is my north, my south, my east, my west,” said Father McNerney. “He is the one I’ve always sought after.”

The Gospel that St. Patrick preached was not a Gospel of imposition, but a living invitation, Father McNerney added.

St. Patrick is also said to have used the three leaf clover to explain the Trinity, which Father McNerney said was “the core of Patrick’s faith.” Quoting St. Augustine, he added, “If you see love, you see the Trinity,” and that is what the Irish experienced through St. Patrick.

Father McNerney spoke of four ways to try to live like St. Patrick: try to be the first to love, not waiting for someone else to love you; love your neighbor as yourself; see the other with new eyes; and be always ready to start again in this way of living.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl addressed the young girls from the O’Neil James School of Irish Dance, who were preparing to once again dance outside of the Church after they processed out. The girls “represent this younger generation that continues to pass on the message” and the heritage of St. Patrick, Cardinal Wuerl said.

One of the great gifts of the Catholic faith, he added, is “to love and share that love with others,” and that “has to be passed on from generation to generation.”

In keeping with that message, Cardinal Wuerl recalled the first time he came to the St. Patrick’s Day Mass at that church 56 years ago, while he was a student at Catholic University. On that day, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle was the celebrant, and this year, Cardinal Wuerl found Cardinal O’Boyle’s cross to wear “to remind all of us it is always the next generation to pass on the heritage.”

John Patrick Walsh, the president of the D.C. chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, plans to do exactly that by passing on his Irish Catholic heritage to his son, who turned eight months old on St. Patrick’s Day.

“It is important for me to pass it on to my son as my father passed it on to me,” Walsh said. “Ireland does feel like home even though I’m an American.”

The Ancient Order of the Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternity that promotes the faith and Irish Catholic identity, is the continuation of a society formed in Ireland during the Protestant Reformation to protect Catholic clergy from persecution. Members of the order served as ushers at the Mass, sporting sashes with the colors of the Irish flag. To join, members must be of Irish birth or descent, and one of the order’s requirements is that members attend Mass on St. Patrick’s Day.

“Unfortunately, our culture thinks it’s all about drinking, green beer and little leprechauns,” Walsh said. “But to me, it’s about celebrating the apostle who brought Christianity to my forefathers.”