Last week a group of the Holy Spirit Congregation came to Armagh on pilgrimage in preparation for the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Among the prayers they offered was Patrick’s own famous prayer for perseverance in Ireland. It begins with the immortal words: “My only prayer to God is that it may never happen that I should lose His people which He won for himself at the end of the earth” (Confession of Patrick N. 58). These words remind me of the question posed by Jesus in the Gospel, “When the Son of Man comes again will he find faith?”

St. Patrick’s Day unites Irish people all over the world. For. Patrick has become at once a symbol of Irish history and of Irish heritage. But simply to reduce Patrick to a symbol of that kind, worthy as it may be, without any reference to his own christian faith distorts the truth and in no way does justice to the real stature of the man.

Patrick was a migrant, not once but twice, to our land. Despite his rather scary first experience, amazingly Patrick did return but he himself makes it quite clear why he did so. “Before God and His holy angels I solemnly and gladly swear that I had never any motive other than the Gospel and its promises to go back to that nation from which previously I had only barely escaped” (Confession N.61)

The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promises which that Good News contains brought Patrick back to Ireland. I believe that any authentic celebration of St. Patrick’s Day must somehow remember and celebrate that fact. A celebration that belittles or ridicules the values of that Gospel surely offends the man whose memory it is meant to honour.

Patrick describes himself as a ‘rustic’, an ‘untaught refugee’. But mysteriously in the providence of God, this ‘rustic’ was chosen in preference to many others who were apparently better prepared. His choice had nothing to do with his culture or his education but it had everything to do with his own personal faith and with the fact that Patrick’s God meant everything to him.

Next week, Intercultural Week is being celebrated. It is being organised by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland in conjunction with the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism in Ireland. The week will focus on encouraging a greater involvement and a greater sense of belonging for people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The civil law lays down the basic standards but something more is needed to build a society that is truly inclusive, a society that is welcoming and respectful of people of different cultures, languages and traditions. I would venture to suggest that what is really needed is the proclamation and the living of the truth of Christ – a truth brought by Patrick to our land – the truth of Christ who educates consciences and teaches the authentic dignity of every human person. The golden rule from Christ was: ‘treat others as you wish them to treat you’. Is there any better recipe for building an inclusive society?