We stand on Holy Ground.  We stand on the spot where, thirty years ago, the successor of Peter, Pope John Paul II, described his joy at following in the footsteps of Patrick who came to the nearby Hill of Slane to light the first Paschal Fire in Ireland.  It was my great privilege to accompany the Holy Father here to Drogheda.  We came by helicopter.  After seeing the huge crowds in the Phoenix Park, I was thrilled to see that there was another huge crowd here in Drogheda. They were well catered for, thanks to the excellent organisation which had been carried out by the Committee led by Bishop James Lennon. 

The Holy Father took on an immense day’s work that particular day.  He left Vatican City very early, went to Rome airport, arrived at Dublin Airport, went from there to the Nunciature; to the Phoenix Park; down to Drogheda; back to Dublin; toured the streets of Dublin; visited Áras an Uachtaráin and had a couple of other meetings. 

The end result was that the man didn’t get sitting down to his dinner until after midnight.  He said:  ‘The Irish are trying to kill me on the first day’.  Yes, indeed, we did try to kill him with meetings and travel and speeches and ceremonies.  But that was the kind of man Pope John Paul was.  He never said ’no’.  He came to Ireland en route to the USA and the United Nations. He was very sorry he didn’t get to Northern Ireland, especially as the other Church Leaders had joined Cardinal Ó Fiaich in inviting him there.
Here in Drogheda the Pope said:  ‘‘I desire to visit those places in Ireland where the power of God and the action of the Holy Spirit had been especially manifested. 

I would like you to think a little bit about that.  This is one of those places in Ireland where the power of God and the action of the Holy Spirit have been especially manifested. Now, of course, we all know Drogheda is a special place and that Drogheda people are special people.  But it is nice to know that this has always been the case.  It is good to know that others, including the Pope, have noticed this also.  Why did the Pope come to this conclusion?  He was well aware, I suppose, that Patrick had to pass Drogheda on the way to Slane.  On the Hill of Slane, Patrick; ‘for the first time in Ireland, lit the Paschal Fire, so that the light of Christ might shine forth on all of Ireland and unite all its people in the love of the one Jesus Christ’.  Drogheda welcomed Patrick, as later it would welcome Malachy, Oliver Plunkett, Mother Mary Martin and many others down through the years.  Here Pope John Paul prayed:  ‘May the light of Christ – the light of faith – continue always to shine out from Ireland’.

While in Ireland, the Pope reminded us powerfully of the challenge of remaining faithful in the midst of change. From his landing on Irish soil to the last minutes before his departure, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the outstanding fidelity of the Irish people to the Christian faith. After kissing the ground at Dublin Airport, he spoke of his gratitude ‘for the glorious contribution made by Ireland over the centuries to the spreading of the faith.’ As he departed from Shannon Airport he repeated those famous and important words – Ireland Semper fidelis! Ireland – always faithful.

Yet in reminding us of our heroic fidelity he conveyed a prophetic sense of anticipation that Ireland was about to enter one of its most challenging periods since the time of Patrick. In the opening words of the homily of his first Mass in the Phoenix Park in Dublin he spoke of how ‘Ireland, that has overcome so many difficult moments in her history, is being challenged in a new way today, for she is not immune from the influence of ideologies and trends which present day civilisation and progress carry with them.’ He spoke of the capability of mass media to bring into our homes a ‘new kind of confrontation with values and trends that up until now have been alien to Irish society.’ He spoke of the danger of a pervading materialism bringing new forms of slavery and an ‘aggressiveness that spares no one.’ He also said that ‘the most sacred principles, which were the sure guides for the behaviour of individuals and society, are being hollowed-out by false pretences concerning freedom, the sacredness of life, the indissolubility of marriage, the true sense of human sexuality, the right attitude towards the material goods that progress has to offer.’

Looking back we can now appreciate just how prophetic these words were. They were summed up in Pope John Paul II’s often quoted sermon from his final Mass of the visit in Limerick. It was here he said: ‘Ireland is at the point of decision in her history…. Ireland must choose. You the present generation of Irish people must decide; your choice must be clear and your decision firm”. But let us never forget – Ireland has overcome many difficult moments in her history.  Ireland can, and will, with the help of God, overcome those difficulties again.

Pope John Paul went on to talk about St. Oliver Plunkett and his canonisation which he attended in 1975 at the invitation of his friend, the late Cardinal Conway. 
When he spoke at Drogheda, Pope John Paul gave a powerful message about peace and reconciliation.  It was not to be just any peace and reconciliation, but a peace based on justice.  He turned to four specific groups of people to deliver what he asked.

1.    He spoke to the men and women of violence – especially the young men and women of violence.
2.    He spoke to fathers and mothers.
3.    He appealed to leaders – especially political leaders.
4.    He spoke to Catholics and Protestants.

Let us recall what was asked and then we can see what was given in response.

To the first group he said – “On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace”.  Remember this was 1979 – the end of the first decade of the Troubles – the most bloody and violent decade of all.

It was into this context of fear and almost despair that the Apostle of Peace spoke his often quoted passionate pleading – “You must know” he said, “that there is a political, peaceful way to justice”.  Thirty years later we have seen what was almost unimaginable then.  Almost all the paramilitary organisations have decommissioned, others are in the process of doing so.  We have the Assembly – where politicians work together in a power-sharing executive.  Today we give thanks to God for all of this.

And yet, because we still have a small, but determined group, determined apparently to carry on the fight – I want to make my own the words which Pope John Paul addressed to young people on this spot:  “I say to you, with all the love I have for you, with all the trust I have in young people, do not listen to voices which speak the language of hatred, revenge, retaliation.  Do not follow any leaders who train you in ways of inflicting death.  Love life- respect life – in yourselves and in others. Give yourselves to the service of life, not of death” I beg all of you here today to pray that this appeal will be heeded.

Next the Pope spoke to fathers and mothers saying, “Teach your children how to forgive.  Make your homes places of love and forgiveness.  Make your streets and neighbourhoods centres of peace and reconciliation”.  Here is the recipe for a secure and harmonious future, not just in politics but in personal and domestic life also.

There have been some good initiatives.  I remember meeting a group some years ago, led by the Mayor of Drogheda, which included pupils from St. Joseph’s CBS who were on a visit to a school in Ballyclare, County Antrim.  Of course there have also been the developments at the site of the Battle of the Boyne which have been warmly welcomed also.

These are the kind of efforts which the Holy Father had in mind when he said:  “Never think you are betraying your own community by seeking to understand and respect and accept those of a different tradition”.  We need lots of those initiatives. 

All the people in positions of leadership and all members of political parties and all who support them were encouraged to make a special effort.  They were told that they would serve their own tradition best by working for reconciliation with others.  I think that the St. Oliver Plunkett Peace Group, ably led by Tony Burns, have risen magnificently to the challenge.

The Holy Father made a very special appeal to all who, he said, are called to the noble vocation of politics.  He urged them to have courage and to face up to their responsibilities.  The challenge is ever timely and relevant not just for politicians, for all leaders.  The cause of peace, reconciliation and justice will always require the courage to adopt policies that promote the genuine common good.

Finally, the Pilgrim of Peace turned to Catholics and Protestants saying:  “My message is one of peace and love.  May no Irish Protestant think that the Pope is an enemy, a danger or threat.  My desire is that instead Protestants would see in me a friend and a brother in Christ”.  Again it is timely to recall those words in a week when some here have tried to drum up opposition to a possible Papal visit.  “Let history record” the Pope concluded: “That at a difficult moment in the experience of the people of Ireland, the Bishop of Rome set foot in your land, that he was with you and prayed with you for peace and reconciliation for the victory of justice and love over hatred and violence”.

A recent piece of research here in the Republic has shown that there has been a dramatic drop in support for Christian Church Unity in principle over recent years. 

This has to be disappointing when we consider what Pope John Paul II said here thirty years ago.  Speaking of the invitations to visit Northern Ireland he said they were “an indication of the fact that the Second Vatican Council is achieving its work and that we are meeting with our fellow Christians of other Churches”.  However, I believe the situation is not as bleak as the perceptions revealed by the Report.  Slow but solid progress has been made.

The research referred to, was carried out by Father Michéal McGréil, SJ and goes on to say that “The scandal of Church division puts people off the Christian Faith while evidence of Church Unity would make it authentic and attractive.  A revival of the ecumenical movement is called for from the findings of this Report”.

•    What we have to ask ourselves now is: 
•    How is the Power of God being shown here and now in Drogheda? 
•    Where is the Holy Spirit at work?
•    How are you and I co-operating or maybe not co-operating with the Holy Spirit here and now?

Ireland is once again at a moment of decision, a time of choice.  Let us ask Our Lady, ‘Queen of Peace and Queen of Ireland’, to help the pilgrim Church – that is – all the people who profess their faith in His son – to say ‘Yes’ once again – as she did with such serenity and fidelity – to Him who is the way, the truth and the life – both now and forever AMEN