Saint vs. Saint

St. Patrick Rocks …

The two great saints of March are very different from one another. But they share one certain distinction: Neither came from the place that most reveres him.

I have a special appreciation for this paradox as, in case you didn't notice the byline above, I'm named after both Patrick and Joseph.

While it is often remarked that Patrick was not born on the Emerald Isle of my forebears, Joseph was certainly not an Italian, and he is not even the patron saint of Italy (a title that belongs to native son Francis of Assisi).

Saints don't compete with each other, but we sure do — including when it comes to feasts and festivals. Everyone wants to have the biggest and best. With thanks to the Register for offering me the chance to say so in print: When it comes to the feasts of March 17 vs. March 19, the earlier party — Patrick's — wins in a landslide.

Like St. Joseph himself, March 19 is, well, modest. That's as it should be, as the date is not technically a feast; it's a liturgical solemnity. There might be some great things happening in the kitchen on St. Joseph's Day, but there are no greeting cards, parades or TV specials. Nor is there any special music associated with that day. It is observed as Father's Day in many countries, but few take it off.

This is not to say that St. Joseph's Day is not important for all Catholics. I remember a very special March 19 while working at Iona College in New Rochelle, a city in an area of Westchester County, N.Y., to which Italians continue to immigrate. It was a private Mass offered for the superb groundskeepers of the college, who, at the time, were all natives of Italy.

The congregation numbered just the men and a few guests. As befitting the quiet saint whose voice is never heard in Scripture, there was no singing, preaching or anything special beyond some St. Joseph's bread that was shared after Mass in a nearby office.

It was an honor to join those humble working men in their love of God and their great devotion to “San Giuseppe,” the saint of work, humility and fatherly kindness. While no religious service could have been more poignant, let me contrast that experience with the first March 17 I ever celebrated on New York's Fifth Avenue when I was about 12.

Remember, St. Patrick is more of a contemporary figure in that he was a missionary and activist, a fighter who took on the Irish pagan tribes and whipped them into a respectable Catholic people. He must have been quite a force, for his feast reminds us of his energy, sweeping us up in the great events of his life and legacy.

I felt this powerfully as I arrived at St. Patrick's Cathedral just ahead of the thundering boots of the 500 or so troops that were about to march into the cathedral for Mass.

In all, the men of the famous Fighting 69th Regiment, known as the “Irish Brigade” since before the Civil War, were in full-dress uniforms. Flags and battle standards abounded along with a few Irish wolfhounds, which took their posts at St. Patrick's great doors.

Scanning the massive congregation, I saw the mayor, the governor and leading congressmen sitting in the front rows. I recognized some of the TV newsmen and Jimmy Breslin, the columnist. Actress Helen Hayes was poised to do one of the readings.

And then came the religious procession: Scores of men in cassock and surplice moved through clouds of incense ahead of monsignors and bishops — lots of bishops — and then Cardinal Terence Cooke, the archbishop of New York, who took his throne as three visiting bishops from Ireland led the concelebrated Mass.

A mighty chorus sang hymns in English, Latin and Gaelic. At the consecration, a bugler sounded a solemn note as flags dipped in reverence. And all of this was just the kickoff for a five-hour parade through the center of the city!

Both of March's saints are my namesakes, and I talk to them all year long. And while St. Joseph, as patron of the universal Church, can be said to hold a higher place, Patrick is the saint with a knack for a party. He just makes for a greater day, a real celebration — the one to shoot the moon for.

Bottom line: Catholics can feel free to whoop it up (with sobriety and moderation, of course) come March 17. After all, there'll be plenty of time for quiet prayer and contemplation (punctuated by some admittedly delicious, Lent-friendly victuals) two days later.

Joseph Patrick Cullen writes from New York City.

… St. Joseph Rules

There's no doubt about it. Boston is an Irish town, more so than just about any other American city. Growing up Italian around here means you're usually more familiar with St. Patrick's feast day than with St. Joseph's.

In fact, March 17 is a real holiday in the city of Boston. Following just two days later, St. Joseph's comes off like an afterthought. It might be in a little bad taste to engage in a game of My Saint's Better Than Yours. But, in the interest of assuring fairness and balance on the liturgical calendar, some comparisons need to be drawn. Besides, I've never been accused of having good taste. (And if anyone's feathers get ruffled, blame the Register.

This was their idea.) Anyway, it's interesting the Irish choose to celebrate a saint whose origins are actually British and who only came to their country because he was enslaved by their ancestors.

To their credit, those ancient Celts realized their error and many were converted by his holy witness. Plus they knew a good snake-chaser when they saw one. On the other hand, we have St. Joseph, paragon of virtue, chosen by God as provider for and protector of the Second Person of the Trinity and his Mother.

Now that's a saint. Okay, just as Patrick wasn't born in Ireland, neither was Joseph born in Italy. Nor did he ever travel there. But the way he came to be associated with the country is inspiring in its own right.

The tradition of celebrating St. Joseph's day as a special feast began in the Middle Ages, during a severe drought in Sicily. The legend goes that the people called on St. Joseph in prayer, promising that if it rained, they would hold a huge feast in his honor. When the rains came, the wealthy families prepared banquet tables in public squares and invited poor people to come and eat as much as they wanted.

To this day, Italians make it known that they take great pride in their special saint. Many celebrate his feast day with as much vigor as the Irish celebrate theirs. In other words, we're just as enthusiastic as they are. We just express it differently.

Green beer seems to be the beverage of choice for Hibernians. Italians prefer something a little closer to a natural color, maybe some of Uncle Frank's paisano wine.

And then there's the food. While our Celtic brethren are eating corned beef and cabbage, our mothers, aunts and grandmothers are preparing something that says Abbondanza! to every nose in the neighborhood.

Continuing the tradition of St. Joseph's feast, we have the cena di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph's Table. Presiding over the traditional feast were the “Holy Family,” people of the village or parish playing St. Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and the poor would be invited to feast, extending the tradition of generosity. Something like this now occurs in many places in the United States, after Sicilians and southern Italians brought the custom with them to the New World.

Today it often takes the form of a potluck dinner in the parish hall where we feast on pasta and vegetables; cavazune, or St. Joseph's Pants, a kind of chick-pea calzone; a soup called minestra di San Giuse, into which everyone adds any vegetarian ingredients that are handy; St. Joseph's Bread, shaped to look like the saint's beard; and other non-meat items (it is Lent, after all).

But the best is reserved for dessert. That's when we have St. Joseph's Sfinge, or cream puffs, a chocolate and ricotta confection with a hint of orange. And, of course, irresistible zeppole, now so popular with the masses that it can be found in many non-Italian bakeries and even supermarkets each March 19.

All this food is piled high on St. Joseph's Altar, the most delectable-looking altar you've ever seen. Mangia!

But enough about eating. After all, it's Lent. Did you remember to start your St. Joseph Novena on March 11? It's one powerful prayer. But don't take it from me — take it from St. Patrick. I'm sure he never failed to pay his respects to the greatest father figure of them all.

Domenico Bettinelli Jr. writes from Salem, Massachusetts.