17 Mar – St. Patrick’s Day

17 MARCH 2000

Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. Today we rejoice that our names are written in heaven. We give thanks to God for sending St. Patrick to Ireland to tell us that. St. Patrick came to preach the glory of God to the people of Ireland. He came to tell us that we are meant to share in, and enjoy, the glory of God. He came to tell us to rejoice, to be happy, because our names are written on the invitation list for heaven.

The hunger for glory is to be found in the heart of each one of us. This morning I saw a team of young men arrive at the Grammar School here at 8.30 am. They were getting ready for a final which begins in a little over a hour’s time in Casement Park, Belfast. Today Crossmaglen Rangers return to Croke Park in search of further glory. During the week thousands travelled to Cheltenham and Old Trafford. Part of this enjoyment for them is to bask in the reflected glory of winners.

That is the sort of glory that fades and is short lived. Yesterday’s stars must give way to today’s heroes. But the glory of God is everlasting, there is a share in it not just for everyone in the audience but for everyone whose name is written in heaven. The glory of God lasts forever. The glory of God is the only glory that can satisfy the deepest hunger of our hearts, the hunger for happiness, the hunger for love that never ends.

I am grateful to all who put up flags, the flags for St. Patrick’s Day here in Armagh and to all those who have marched here in uniform to this Mass – Scouts, Guides, the Order of Malta. We will miss the parade here in Armagh in the afternoon but I hope we will all celebrate, celebrate very happily the fact that we are proud to call ourselves Christians.

Today we remember the fact that Patrick came back to Ireland to bring Good News. He brought that Good News to our ancestors who were, until then heathens, that is, pagans, people who did not believe in the One True God. They did not even know about the One True God but maybe believed in several gods, we don’t know.

During his captivity in Ireland, Patrick had seen that our pagan ancestors were really to be pitied. No-one had ever told them about the One True God. Patrick saw that they were poorer for this. Probably before coming to Ireland Patrick himself did not appreciate the value of his faith in the One True God. In fact he tells us that in his writings, “I was almost sixteen and I did not know the True God”. Patrick looked on his captivity in Ireland as a punishment for the fact that he had turned away from God. “We deserved this fate” he says. “We have turned away from God. We neither kept His Commandments” he said, “nor obeyed our priests”.

Then things changed for Patrick and they changed drastically. He was abducted from his home, not just for a few days but for years. As far as his parents were concerned he simply disappeared. Patrick saw that the Lord scattered him and his companions among many heathen peoples. Later things changed again and this time they changed for the better. First of all the Lord made him see his unbelief, the fact that he really didn’t believe in God or that if he believed in God he was beginning to get careless.

Like the prodigal son in the Gospel, Patrick came to his senses. He recognised his sins. He turned wholeheartedly back to God. He began to know, possibly for the first time, a different kind of God. A God who was concerned for his weakness, who had pity for his youth – remember he was only sixteen – a God who watched over him all the time, even before Patrick turned back to Him and got to know Him. A God who protected Patrick before he knew the difference between good and evil. A God who comforted Patrick as a father comforts his son.

I suppose we could all stop and ask ourselves a question at this stage. Is that the kind of God I know? Is that the kind of God I know and love and try to serve as best I can? That is certainly the God of Jesus Christ. That is the kind of God we find in the New Testament. But how did Patrick come to know God like this? He probably didn’t have any New Testament with him. He certainly didn’t have time to pack his books before being snatched away from his homeland.
Let us listen to his own words:

“When I had come to Ireland I was tending herds every day. I used to pray many times during the day. More and more the love of God and reverence for God came to me. My faith increased, so that in the course of a day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and almost as many in the night. This I did, even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain. Before dawn I used to waken up to pray in snow or frost or rain. I never felt the worst for it; nor was I in anyway lazy because, as I now realise, the Spirit was burning within me”

But of course Patrick got his freedom, got home to his family and they were telling him that he must never leave them again. But we know that in time Patrick came to believe that God was calling him to come back to Ireland. He believed that in a dream, God was calling him to return to Ireland. And, even though Patrick believed God was calling him to do so, and even though he knew he had something great to bring to the Irish, I am sure the Evil One, the Devil, was suggesting to him many reasons why he should not return.
I am sure Satan was trying to undermine his confidence and tell him that he wasn’t well enough educated to face the Druids. After all, his education had been seriously interrupted. Satan would have been pointing out the obstacles. He would have been reminding Patrick of the way the Irish had treated him. That you couldn’t trust them. Satan would have been trying to revive memories of the hurts. Anyhow we know, despite all the odds, Patrick did come.

In that sense he is a model of pardon and forgiveness and reconciliation. He is a model that we badly need at the moment. Patrick came because he trusted not in his own abilities, far from it. He described himself as a sinner, the most rustic and least of all the faithful, the most contemptible in the eyes of a great many people. That was what Patrick believed about himself. But he had confidence nevertheless. He had confidence in the power of God. He knew what God had done for him and he says he can’t be held back from singing the praises of God. He said: “Before I was humbled I was like a stone lion in the deep mud, then He, who was mighty, came and in His mercy He not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall”. He said “I must speak publicly to repay the Lord for such wonderful gift”.
We need Patrick at the moment. We need him to build confidence in ourselves and in others. Confidence building is a crucial question here, right now in Northern Ireland. We look to institutions to build confidence and they can play an important part. But confidence implies an attitude of trusting in, or relying on, someone or something. Confidence building boils down ultimately to building up trust between people.

Further progress can only come about through the restoration and deepening of trust within the political system of course but also within all sections of our community. The task of building confidence in a divided society is always difficult. No-one should expect it to be otherwise. We believe that our confidence is built on the power of God ultimately.

Earlier this week the Irish Bishops’ Conference called on all our people to pray to God that the progress already made may be further developed over the coming weeks because certainly no-one can be complacent about the danger of a continuing political vacuum.

St. Patrick was a man with a message. His message was one of forgiveness. As I said, he had good reason to feel bitter and resentful about being kidnapped from his home at 16 years of age and being lost and separated from his parents and friends and family for six years. His education was ruined. His life and his plans totally upset. Yes Patrick had very good reason to feel bitter and full of hatred for the Irish. In fact he didn’t feel any such bitterness because he knew that he himself had been forgiven by God. He was determined that he in turn was going to forgive those who had injured him. And, to those who had persecuted the Irish on account of their faith, he addressed an urgent call to repentance. He offered them the assurance of God’s mercy if they would come to their senses, abandon their evil ways, and ask for God’s forgiveness.

One of the great themes of Jubilee Year is that of reconciliation. I think if Patrick were here today he would be saying to people to examine their lives and, if they see that they have been careless and sinned, to remember that God is a God of forgiveness, a God of mercy, a God of compassion. He would be wanting us to listen to the call to come back and have our sins forgiven. He would be wanting us to know that the only way of having sins forgiven is to approach Christ, in the sacrament of Confession.
I wish you all a happy St. Patrick’s Day. I think a happy St. Patrick’s day would be one where we experience something of the deep peace and joy which Patrick experienced in the presence and knowledge of God. That is the happiness I wish you on this day.

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