I am delighted to welcome Archbishop Eames here and all of you who have joined us. We appreciate this opportunity of once again sending you Christmas greetings from Armagh.

One of the most popular stories at this time of year is a A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. It is a story of a man who has forgotten how to be happy. He is too busy making money, doing deals, getting as much as possible for as little as possible. But he has forgotten why he is doing all of this. Then he remembers once again his childhood days and begins to relive the family warmth, the friendship and the sharing. He wonders how he ever lost this spirit. It was, of course, because he had turned his back on love. Then one day he saw a small, sick child. The sight of this child turned his heart to flesh once more from the stone it had become, and helped the miser to see himself with new eyes and made him care again. The Christmas Child has come to help us all to see again.

Talking of sick children and the need to see anew reminds me of Malawi and Zimbabwe. Recently a delegation from Trócaire visited there. One of them told me he was moved to tears at the sight of the children and of their matchstick legs, bare ribcages and tired, listless eyes. We think of them and of their families on this Christmas day and pray earnestly that the threat of famine, which they face, may be averted.

The children of our own country have a hunger of a different kind. Not so much a hunger for material things, though that still exists, but more a need for values, for ideals, which will guide them to find personal happiness and make their contribution in life. In their search for fulfilment the young look to adults for role models and examples.

This year, in Armagh, the arrival of Sam Maguire has provided outstanding inspiration for a new generation of aspiring champions. This historic victory has renewed the energies of those who dedicate themselves to the discipline of sport.

Last July, many young people travelled to Toronto for World Youth Day. There they met and prayed with Pope John Paul II. They came away inspired and refreshed in their faith.

But this Christmas, failures of Church and State and of the wider society to children, both in terms of care and example, are keenly felt by many. The Church especially, by command of the Lord, who said “suffer little children to come to me” should be to the forefront in the care and regard for the welfare of young people. We are deeply sorry for our failures in the past but where we have failed, we will learn for the future. We continue to pledge our support to those whose childhood has been disfigured or taken away.

As we reflect on maimed childhood, we think of those whose bodies continue to be maimed in assaults, stabbings and punishment beatings. Let there be an end this Christmas to the on-going brutality of such deeds. Apart from the pain and suffering involved, there is also the message that it sends – that violence is the way to resolve conflict, and brute force the means of providing order.

This may have been the way of Herod, but it is not the way of the Prince of Peace.

In Northern Ireland the political parties have much to reflect upon this Christmas. Once again they hold the future stability of society in their collective hands. It is a great responsibility and our prayers and hopes are that they find the wisdom and the courage to discharge this responsibility.

I love Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, Christmas Carol 1942. It captures for me something of the renewing power of childhood and of the Christ child.

Sing of the Childhood
That renews for us all –
Banker or farmer
Or soldier in armour –
The laugh of the soul.
Sing the Child in the stall.
May you, and all those whom you love, enjoy a peaceful Christmas and a New Year of health and happiness.