I was in Portsmouth Cathedral yesterday for Corrymeela Sunday. When I arrived there on Saturday a great Irish lady was busy cleaning and shining the statue of St. Patrick to make sure he was looking his best for the feast.

Last night I came to London to St. Augustine’s Church on Fulham Palace Road and again the statue of St. Patrick was very prominent – and with lots of beautiful flowers and candles to honour the saint. In the early hours of the morning the strains of Danny Boy were wafting their way towards Hammersmith Bridge as the London Irish lost no time in getting the celebrations under way. The Irish had already gathered in Westminster Cathedral yesterday for a special Mass, of course, the place to be on St. Patrick’s Day is Armagh City where devotion to St. Patrick exists all the year round and reaches its climax on March 17 each year.

So it is a great honour for me to celebrate this Mass in honour of our Patron Saint with you all here today. It is a daunting thought to be his Successor – therefore I ask your prayers, especially today and I thank you for your prayers at every Mass that is offered in this Cathedral and in this Archdiocese.

In a sense we are all successors to St. Patrick, for we have all inherited the faith which he brought to this land. We who live here in the City of Armagh, in Patrick’s own city, and who pray and worship here in Patrick’s own Cathedral, are especially proud and happy today. We give sincere thanks to God for Patrick and for the faith which Patrick brought. We ask God for all the strength and grace and help which we need to live up to that faith. We think of all who are dear to us and we pray that they too may be loyal and faithful to the God whom Patrick made known to us and that they may reject Satan and all his empty promises.

We think of all the Irish, wherever they may be today that, in the words of Patrick: “they may give faithful testimony of God until their death”. Indeed we can all make our own Patrick’s prayer:.
“Therefore let God never permit me to lose the people that He has won in the ends of the earth. I pray God”, says Patrick, “to give me perseverance and to deign to allow me to give faithful testimony of Him, until my death, for the sake of my God”.

So today, St. Patrick’s Day, let us try to get behind the snakes and the shamrock and try and get to know the man himself. For that we have to turn to the two letters written by him and which have survived his Confession and his Letter against the soldiers of Coroticus.

You may be interested to know that the earliest manuscript which we have of these letters was copied into the Book of Armagh early in the Ninth Century soon after the year 800. These letters give us very little factual information about the details of his life but they tell us quite a lot about the kind of person Patrick was.

Patrick was a Briton, born probably near Carlisle in England. It is probable that his father’s farm was somewhere in the western part of Britain – in a part which was open to raids by Irish pirates. When he was sixteen years of age Irish plunderers descended on the district around his home. Patrick, along with many others, was kidnapped and taken as a slave in Ireland. After six tough years Patrick escaped from his slavery. He eventually arrived home. His family expected him to stay and settle down, but that was not to be. Patrick had a dream, calling him back to Ireland. Remarkably, against all the odds, and against the wishes of his family, Patrick followed that dream.

He probably came to the North East of Ireland. He would have come as a Bishop, not on a mission to a totally pagan country, but to some sort of Christian community that was already established.
He wrote the Confession to defend himself against accusations. These accusations were made before a gathering of His seniors. He makes three points:

Firstly, he defends what he has done in going to the ends of the Earth among the heathen Irish – to preach to them.

Secondly, he insists that God had guided him, guided him directly by inspirations received in a dream.
Finally, he says that he did not profit financially from his mission.

These are the external facts. Now what of the inner life, the story of his soul.

Patrick begins his Declaration “I, Patrick – a Sinner, am a most uncultivated man and the least of all the faithful and I am greatly despised by many”

I, Patrick, a sinner – Patrick takes responsibility for what he has done. He does not blame anyone else, it is His own fault. Even though he was only sixteen when he was kidnapped he says it was well deserved. “I had neglected the true God and when I was carried off to captivity in Ireland it was well deserved for we cut ourselves off from God and did not keep his commandments. Then the Lord made me aware of my unbelief so that however late, I might recollect my offences and turn will all my heart to the Lord my God”.
Cut off from his family and his homeland, Patrick now saw that he had been cut off from his God also. His exile from His Creator was much more serious than his exile from his homeland.

Like the Prodigal Son Patrick found himself feeding pigs. Like the Prodigal Son Patrick came to his senses. “More and more”, he tells us “the love and fear of God came to me and faith grew and my spirit was exercised until I was praying up to 100 times a day and in the night nearly as often”

In the midst of his loneliness Patrick discovered God to be a real father. In the middle of all his sufferings Patrick came to know Jesus as his Saviour. In the hour of his need the Holy Spirit taught him to pray. It was all God’s doing. Patrick cannot stop praising God.

“I was like a stone that had fallen into deep mire, and He who is mighty, came and in His mercy picked me up and lifted me high to place me on top of a wall”.

Perhaps that image was inspired here around Armagh. Maybe he was out walking and had seen someone lift up a stone out of a drain, down near the Callan River and perhaps maybe that same stone is still lying around on top of the wall – who knows? One thing is certain, Patrick was reconciled to His God because of God’s love for him. Then, secure in the knowledge that he really was loved by God, Patrick was set free of the bitterness and hatred which he probably felt towards his Irish captors and oppressors. Patrick was set free from anger and fear as well.

He was set free for greater things. When God called Patrick to return to Ireland, Patrick was free to answer that call. He was able to overcome the obstacles and the protests of his family and give himself to this work for the Irish, despite the fact that some of them had been his gaolers and his oppressors.
Patrick quite rightly decided that not all the Irish had wronged him. He had seen the goodness of the majority of the people. He saw that they were open to hearing the Good News of God’s love for them. Today we give thanks that Patrick was reconciled first with his God and then with his former enemies.
So what would Patrick say to us today? He would probably begin: “I Patrick, a Sinner, wish to remind you that you are all sinners”. We have all failed. We have all fallen short of God’s plans for us. We are all like that stone that has fallen into the mud. He would also urge us to recollect our offences and turn with all our heart to the Lord.

Yesterday was Corrymeela Sunday. Corrymeela is a Centre of Reconciliation on the North Antrim coast. It has brought thousands of people together from both sides of the divide over the past thirty years. The come together to tell their story and to listen to the story of other people. The Sunday nearest to St. Patrick’s day was chosen as Corrymeela Sunday because Patrick is seen as a model of reconciliation and an apostle of reconciliation. Patrick was someone who lived the words of St. Paul: “forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you.. Now you must do the same”. Offer Forgiveness, Accept Peace was the message of Pope John Paul for World Peace Day – 1 January of this year.

Yes, Patrick defended his rights, especially when he was attacked by his seniors but I am quite certain that he would be the first to recognise that other people have rights as well.

Patrick, Apostle of Reconciliation, would certainly be working to reconcile conflicts and to reduce tensions. As his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus shows, Patrick would never approve of violence as a means, he condemns it in the strongest terms.

So as the advent of another marching season begins to cast its long shadow over the lives of us all, I imagine Patrick would be advising us to draw hope from what happened in Derry last year. There, the peacemakers simply refused to give up or lose heart. Those efforts bore fruit and an accommodation was reached.

There is hope that this year a similar process of negotiation at local level will produce success in other places where parades are contentious. Nobody should fear taking part in negotiations. Nobody should have to negotiate out of fear. Let us all pray earnestly that an accommodation may be reached and that the trauma of last year may be avoided.

A total cessation of violence would create the climate where these and other negotiations could take place. No-one can really claim to be for peace in Northern Ireland and rationalise or justify the use of force to pursue political ends. I hope that the IRA will come to see this and restore the cease-fire. Only the power of Christ can reconcile our divisions. In Christ Jesus, those who used to be so far apart have been brought very close.

Yes, the journey may remain unfinished but a lot of the road has been travelled. It is Patrick who first told us about Jesus breaking down barriers and destroying hostility. Patrick revealed the plans of Jesus to restore peace through the Cross and to unite this world in a single body and reconcile them with God.
Today Patrick would want to say “Get on with the job, finish the journey, continue to break down the barriers caused by fear and mistrust. This is the greatest border of all. It separates people in a deeper way than any physical border. Only by overcoming this legacy of fear and suspicion can the true border be crossed into the land of real freedom”.

Grant us on Lord, a heart renewed, recreate in us your own spirit O Lord. We say and pray those words in these weeks. May they become a reality in the life of each one of us. A heart renewed with the knowledge that we can be and will be restored to God’s friendship if only we ask.

A spirit recreated and energised within us for the task of breaking the barriers that divide us and seeking all that unites us. Praise to the Lord of my Salvation. Salvation is of Christ the Lord.