updated 2/20/2008 3:18:25 PM ET 2008-02-20T20:18:25

St. Patrick's Day falls during Holy Week this year, calling into question how Irish-Americans and others should celebrate the traditional day of parades, parties and the color green.

Because of the overlap, the first since 1940, liturgical rules dictate that no Mass in honor of the saint can be celebrated on Monday, March 17, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But a few Roman Catholic leaders are asking for even more moderation in their dioceses: They want parades and other festivities kept out of Holy Week as well.

Bishop J. Kevin Boland of the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., wrote to practically every agency in his city, from the Chamber of Commerce to the Board of Education, saying the diocese was changing the date of its celebration this year. In response, the citywide Irish festival was moved to Friday, March 14, when schools will close and bagpipe-driven parties will carry into the streets.

More than half a million people stream into the Southern city for the festival, one of America's largest St. Patrick's Day affairs, said Bret Bell, Savannah's public information director. Savannah bars will be open March 17, but no organized events will be held that day, he said.

"The city has a very strong Irish Catholic community, a very traditional Irish Catholic community," Bell said. "They attend Mass regularly. And the last thing they want to do is get in the bad graces of the Catholic Church."

Philadelphia has also moved its parade date to avoid giving offense, and Milwaukee is hitting the streets sooner than usual, too.

'Born Irish first'
But in Columbus, Ohio, the Shamrock Club is going ahead with its March 17 parade, drawing protests from the local bishop. A handful of Irish-American politicians have lined up behind church leaders, breaking with tradition by refusing to march in the parade.

In a letter last fall, the Catholic Diocese of Columbus told the Shamrock Club, the group that organizes the parade, that Bishop Frederick Campbell wanted "all observances honoring St. Patrick" — religious or otherwise — removed from Holy Week.

"It's not a sin to celebrate your Irish culture," countered Mark Dempsey, the club's president.

"Actually, you're born Irish first," he said, "and then you're baptized Catholic."

Not all Columbus Irish groups agree. Members of the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a national Irish Catholic organization, will skip the parade and will instead join the March 15 parade in Dublin, a Columbus suburb.

In New York and Boston, with legendary St. Patrick's events planned by the cities' large Irish communities, bishops are taking a hands-off approach, saying the church has no part in planning civic celebrations.

The Archdiocese of New York, which has St. Patrick as a patron saint, will hold the liturgical celebration for St. Patrick on March 14. Cardinal Edward Egan will then celebrate Mass on Monday, the same day as the parade, and will review the procession from the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.

Boston's parade remains set for Sunday, March 16, which is Palm Sunday and the first day of Holy Week.

Rare calendar conflict
Other public dustups over St. Patrick's Day have erupted in past years, including a protracted fight between gay Irish groups and city leaders in New York and Boston over the right to march in the parades, which the Catholic Church has steadfastly opposed.

But a calendar conflict is a rare event: Holy Week will not clash with St. Patrick's Day again until 2160. This year's peculiar schedule also sees the feast day of St. Joseph — honored by Catholics as the husband of the Virgin Mary — celebrated March 15, four days early.

Italian enclaves in many U.S. cities mark St. Joseph's with their own parades, but not on the level inspired by his Irish counterpart, so that shift has not produced any public complaining.

The U.S. remains one of the few countries in the world to retain any religious traces of St. Patrick's Day, said Mike Cronin, Mike Cronin, co-author of "The Wearing of the Green: History of St. Patrick's Day." In Ireland, where the government sponsors the Dublin parade, the holiday has morphed into an arts festival that draws millions of people, he said.

Recognizing that, bishops there have moved the feast of the nation's patron saint to March 15 this year. March 17 will remain an official Irish day off work and the Dublin parade will go on as scheduled.

Had Ireland's bishops shown the same insistence as some of their American counterparts, Cronin said, their comments almost certainly would have been ignored.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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