The scare of foot and mouth disease has cast a damper over this year’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. I know I have received very few St. Patrick’s Day cards. Perhaps people think we are not celebrating the National Feast-day this year. But, here and in Britain, our usual confidence has suffered an unexpected setback. Suddenly we have realised how little power we have in preventing the spread of a virus, how much we depend on the co-operation of the entire community and how much we need the help and protection of God.

So, our first prayer today is to our National Apostle – St. Patrick. He was himself once a shepherd boy, tending sheep during his captivity. Our prayer is to ask him, most sincerely to intercede for us that we may be rid of the terrible plague of foot and mouth disease.

We shall, however, still celebrate, with great joy and gratitude, the Feast of St. Patrick. Patrick was not only a shepherd of animals; he was much more importantly, the shepherd of the Irish – of Irish men and women. He was very much concerned about the well being of the people entrusted to his care and about their spiritual well being. Patrick, I am sure, would be extremely anxious about the spiritual well being of the Irish if he were alive today. Yes there is a great sense of confidence among Irish people today; there is a strong feeling that we have never had things so good. The Celtic Tiger in the South has transformed society – economically and socially. There is much to be thankful for and much of which to be proud.

At the same time, many people are experiencing growing difficulties in maintaining the balance they want in their lives – between their family and their work, between their standard of living and their compassion for people less well-off than themselves. It is becoming more difficult to give practical expression to spiritual values. Yet it is important to remember that a job, while it is paid, is above all, about service to others. It is essential to protect the quality of time given, first of all, to family and to friends. It is necessary to find time and space for quiet and solitude and to practice prayer and contemplation.

As a young adult, Patrick, realised that he had been neglecting God in his life. That was part of the reason, he believed, for his captivity. Let us listen to his own words:

“I am Patrick, a sinner. I was almost sixteen at the time I was taken captive and I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people. We deserved this fate because we had turned away from God; we neither kept His commandments nor obeyed our priests, who used to warn us about salvation”.

I love the honesty of those words. “I am Patrick, a sinner, I did not know the true God”. We live in an age and at a time when it is fashionable to blame someone else for all our faults and failings. How refreshing therefore to find Patrick freely admitting that he deserved what he got. It was the best thing that ever happened to him, he says, because it brought him to his senses. Later Patrick came to see the foolishness of his ways. He was very thankful that he got, what he calls, the great and beneficial gift of knowing and loving God, even if it meant, “leaving my home life and my relatives”.

Patrick was never tired of thanking God for rescuing him from the danger of totally losing his faith. “I give thanks” he says, “to God tirelessly who kept me faithful in the days of trial, who preserved me in all my troubles”. “I am very much in debt to God” Patrick wrote, “who gave me so much grace that through me many people were born again in God”. Yes, Patrick realised that God had made him to be a light to the nations, so that he could be a means of salvation to the ends of the earth. Today, thousands march and celebrate, in so many nations on so many continents, to celebrate the fact that this prophecy has come true.

“All this”, he wrote in another place, “was for a people newly come to belief”. People who the Lord took from the ends of the earth and, as he promised long ago to his prophets, “to you the nations will come from the ends of the earth and will say how false are the idols our fathers made for themselves, how useless they are”.

Well the idols, like the saints, are always liable to make a comeback. It is so easy to get so caught up in the culture of getting and having that it becomes the driving force in life and leaves little or no time for God. The result is that people neglect God in their lives and ignore the faith, which St. Patrick brought to us. The result is that when some difficulty arises, where we cannot rely solely on our own resources, such as the death of someone close or the sickness of someone very dear to us, we find it extremely hard to cope. The result often is deep discouragement and the temptation to despair. But, the best antidote is the support and hope that comes with a strong faith in God.

Patrick lived in an age when the pace of life was slower. Life appeared simpler. Yet his message of faith in God has lessons for our own time. It is a time, which sets such a high store on affluence and trusts solely on one’s own resources. The message brought by Patrick tells us that wealth has an enormous power for doing good in a world as needy as our own. The message of Christ helps us to see that either wealth is shared or its owners become the owned and are diminished in themselves. This message sets both rich and poor free. It invites everyone to see through the falseness of making material possessions the goal of human life. Patrick had his faith strengthened here in Ireland. Here in the north of Ireland he got the wonderful gift of knowing and loving God. Yes, it meant leaving his homeland and his relations. It was a price well worth paying. For, removed from his family he had time to think and to pray. In a single day he says, he would say as many as a hundred prayers and almost as many in the night. Separated from his family and homeland, Patrick found himself in a fearful situation. Working in poverty and in slavery Patrick turned to God in prayer for help. Thanks to his perseverance in prayer and trust in God, Patrick survived.

He not only survived but he discovered what God wanted him to do. He got the courage and the strength to do it. When God asked Patrick to come back to Ireland, he simply could not refuse. He had experienced the love and the care and the protection of God so powerfully in the hour of his need, that God won his heart totally and forever. Patrick simply could not say no to God, who had stood by him in his troubles.

Did you know that for the past three weeks a group of seventy and upwards, lay missionaries and priests, from many parts of the world, have been preaching a mission in Dungannon? The group, which includes young people and couples, have taken time off to host this mission. The central focus is on the love and mercy of Jesus. The missionaries are members of the Emmanuel community and they offer a rich spiritual programme of healing, reconciliation and hope. I think that St. Patrick must be very happy that so many missionaries are once again retracing his footsteps to invite people to open the door to Christ.

This feast always raises a few difficult questions for oneself.

· How grateful do I feel for the faith brought by Patrick?
· How much do I feel moved to share that faith with others and to hand it on to those who come after me?

Every time we come to Mass we are reminded that creation is a shared table. God invites all of us to that table equally. Everytime we go out from Mass, the faith brought by Patrick, commits us again to do our best to change the experience of life for everyone we meet into a pleasant surprise at the bounty and goodness of God.