One of the most memorable events in Ireland this year was the Special Olympics in June. All over the country, in cities, towns and villages, a céad míle fáilte was extended to the international group of young sportsmen and women, with their families and companions. The experience brought out the very best in people as they opened their homes and their hearts to these ‘special’ athletes. Archbishop Eames and I greeted the participants from Australia here in Armagh, and we’ll long remember their joy and enthusiasm, as well as their sense of accomplishment, at simply being here. They blessed us with their presence, and renewed our awareness of what it means to really enjoy life to the full, despite the limitations sometimes imposed by ability. I hope they and all the athletes have many happy memories of their Irish visit to recall as they celebrate with their families this Christmastime.

The Australian athletes gathered with us in our newly restored Catholic Cathedral in Armagh which reopened its doors earlier that month after years of planning and several months of restoration. Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of so many, this work of renewal, which was very much a labour of love, now bears witness to the faith, hope and vision of God’s people in the 21st century. Archbishop Eames and his congregation are also engaged at present in a similar enterprise in their Cathedral. Restoring and renewing our church buildings is not just an exercise in good house keeping, and keeping faith with past generations. Churches are built to make Christians, to produce living stones of faith. They symbolise the readiness of the current generation of believers to face present and future challenges, of which there are many.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace we’re all conscious, I think, of how fragile peace has become in our world. There is an Asian prayer, from the Philippines, that says:

” Bless your people Lord,
who have walked too long in this night of pain.
For the child has no more tears to cry
and the old people no song of joy to sing,
and the blood of our youth drains away in the gutters,”

The use of weapons of war and conflict, the great loss of human life, and the threat of further tragedies, seem to have multiplied this past year. On a daily basis we witness, mostly from the protective distance of a TV screen, scenes of real grief and suffering. In Africa the scourge of AIDS has decimated an entire generation, and set back the development of several nations. On a recent visit to Rwanda, I saw the problem at first hand. There a million people, thirteen percent of the long-suffering population, are HIV positive. But I also saw the magnificent contribution which Irish aid-workers make to help the situation.
In Ireland, too, there have been disturbing and worrying trends in violence, addiction, and suicide. In the face of all these challenges, good people can become discouraged and disheartened, and sometimes be inclined to give up on humanity, but if the Christmas story teaches us anything, it is that God does not give up on us. He set about mending the broken relationships of human beings through the birth of his Son, and that story has continued to regenerate human lives and relationships ever since.

In T. S. Eliot’s poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’, the wise men returned home after their quest had ended, but things were never the same for them again. Eliot wrote:

” We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
but no longer at ease here in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods.”

The story of Christmas is not just a pretty tale to be repeated once a year, and then put away with the decorations. It invites hope in every human heart, and it also should make us, like the returned wise men, a bit uneasy, a little dissatisfied, as we recognise all that still remains to be done to bring about that vision of God, sung by the angels, for peace on earth among all peoples.

May this be a time of peace for every family. May it be a time of hope for those who are struggling or alone. May the Christmas story renew our faith in God and humankind, and inspire us to continue the work of building that kingdom of love which began in such a new and radical way in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.