The sound of bagpipes and clapping interrupted a spring-like Friday in downtown Washington, D.C. A small crowd gathered to watch the Irish dancers of the O’Neill-James School of Irish Dance, garbed in colorful traditional dresses, and a bagpiper perform on the steps of St. Patrick Church for the celebration of the Solemnity of St. Patrick, whose feast day is on March 17. 

A bagpiper performs outside St. Patrick Church in Washington before the Mass honoring the parish's patron saint. (Archdiocese of Washington photo by Gaillard Teague)

The performance preceded and followed a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington, and concelebrated by Washington Auxiliary Bishops Mario Dorsonville, Roy E. Campbell, and Michael Fisher, and Msgr. Salvatore Criscuolo, pastor of St. Patrick. Other priests, including some from Ireland, and the attorney general of Ireland were also in attendance. 

Msgr. Criscuolo at the beginning of the Mass welcomed all who participated in making the celebration of the church’s namesake saint possible. 

“Let us truly rejoice and celebrate the intercession of St. Patrick this day and every day,” he said. 

The Mass included music of a harpist and traditional Irish hymns, such as “This Day God Gives Me,” a song whose lyrics are based on a prayer attributed to St. Patrick. Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternity, assisted as ushers during the Mass. 

Cardinal Wuerl celebrates the St. Patrick's Day Mass at St. Patrick Church in Washington, joined by Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville (at left), and Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr. and Msgr. Sal Criscuolo, St. Patrick's pastor. (Archdiocese of Washington photo by Gaillard Teague)

In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl spoke of how celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with Mass is a fitting commemoration of the holy life of the Irish saint. 

“The good Irish tradition is that we don’t just celebrate for one day,” the cardinal said. “We start now.”

The cardinal brought a prop for his homily –a goblet that he received many years ago as a gift on St. Patrick’s Day, and which pictorially depicts scenes from the life of the saint. 

The four pictures on the cup – St. Patrick’s kidnapping as a youth, his praying while tending his flock of sheep, his returning to Ireland as a bishop to preach the Gospel, and his driving out the snakes from the land – show the saint’s reliance on God’s grace and direction throughout life’s difficulties, the cardinal said. 

“This is Patrick’s task, to come to a land that had yet to hear about the goodness of God, the mystery of Jesus, his death and resurrection, God’s mercy, and the invitation to new life,” he said. 

A well-known legend of the life of St. Patrick tells how he drove the snakes out from Ireland into the sea. This, Cardinal Wuerl said, symbolizes the expulsion of the devil from the hearts of believers.  

“For Patrick, the story was all about God’s grace, giving him the power to live the Gospel,” he said. “And as a result, to distance himself from all the temptations represented by the snakes.” 

Another story tells how St. Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the three leaves on one branch symbolizing the three persons in one God. 

All these stories, depicted on the cup and in many images throughout the church, like the Celtic cross and the stained glass windows above the altar, tell of the tradition of “our faith that is riveted in the very soul of Ireland,” the cardinal said. 

Beginning the celebrations at the altar, the cardinal said, draws in the wonderful Irish traditions of faith and culture to the St. Patrick’s Day revelry “for however long it’s going to go on.” 

Cardinal Wuerl greets a woman wearing green after the St. Patrick's Mass. (Archdiocese of Washington photo by Gaillard Teague)

At the end of the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl greeted the girls from the O’Neill-James School of Irish Dance and presented to them small cross necklaces. 

Members of the O'Neill-James School of Irish Dance perform outside St. Patrick Church in Washington after the March 15 Mass celebrating St. Patrick's Day. (Archdiocese of Washington photo by Gaillard Teague)