Forty years ago, in 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, as a pilgrim for peace. He had wanted to visit Armagh, the Cathedral city of St Patrick, but because of the tensions of those troubled times, his plans had to be changed at the last minute. Instead, the Holy Father stopped just north of Drogheda, not far from the Hill of Slane.
Standing for the first time on Irish soil, the Successor of Peter recalled how St Patrick lit the Paschal Fire in Ireland, “so that the light of Christ might shine forth on all of Ireland and unite all of its people in the love of the one Jesus Christ”.
In 1979 the border between north and south was heavily militarised and monitored. Pope John Paul II chose to speak about Christ as Prince of Peace, and against the construction of “barriers of hate and mistrust”. He said;
“Let history record 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”.
As a young eighteen year old, the words of now-Saint John Paul moved me greatly, especially when he called for respect for the inalienable rights and dignity of the human person, for the spirit of Christian love and forgiveness, and for a complete rejection of violence. In fervent prayer, he invoked the help of Saint Patrick to “Watch over Ireland. Protect humanity”.
In these days of ongoing political and economic uncertainty over Brexit, I’ve been hearing families across the island of Ireland – including those who live and work along the border and those who make their living from farming, business and haulage – express anxiety about what the future might hold. People are speaking about relationships within these islands – north and south, east and west – becoming more strained and fragile.
This year on St Patrick’s Day I therefore offer that same prayer, “St Patrick, Watch over Ireland. Protect humanity”.
One of the great architects of our peace process, Mr John Hume, used to speak of the border not simply as “a line on a map”, but as the institutionalised division that can exist for centuries “in hearts and minds”. If we have learned anything since the Good Friday Agreement, twenty-one years ago, it is that partnership and tolerance, mutual trust and respect, equality and a complete renunciation of violence, are essential for the building of a lasting and just peace. All the more reason then for us to resolve, in the name of St Patrick, to avoid any return to an infrastructure of suspicion and division which could so easily set back decades of progress.
During his ministry, St Patrick was not afraid to speak up strongly for the dignity of the human person. He was a champion for dialogue and for the peaceful resolution of problems. He offered friendship and forgiveness to his former captors and even to the corrupt slave-trader, Coroticus, who attacked his newly-baptised converts.
I hope this weekend that the prayers and example of St Patrick will help our politicians, community leaders and all of us to treat each other with respect in these trying times. If we are to find a way forward and face our many challenges, we need to recover that spirit of fraternity and “strive to do bigger and better things” (Confession 47). As St Patrick himself prayed, may God’s strength “pilot us” in the coming days, months and years.
Agus go dtuga Naomh Pádraig aire daoibh, go dtreoraí sé sibh agus bhur gclanna; go dtuga sé a dhea-mhéin chun bhur muintire agus chun cairde uilig na hÉireann ar fuaid an domhain, inniu agus i gcónaí.
[May St Patrick watch over and guide you, your family and loved ones and all friends of Ireland throughout the world, today and always].