In the spirit of St. Patrick and the Spirit who led him

Northern Ireland has long been divided along sectarian lines, but one thing that unites Catholics and Protestants, loyalists and Republicans, is a reverence for St. Patrick, the 5th century British slave who became a missionary to his Irish captors and, later, the bishop of Ireland.

Part of the St. Patrick mosaic at Belfast Cathedral, showing the missionary's arrival in what is now know as Northern Ireland.

Catholics claim him because he was, of course, devoutly Catholic. Mainline Protestants claim him because of his disagreements with the Roman church hierarchy, his evangelical zeal and his emphasis on the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Patrick was an inspiration for me when I went to Belfast in October 2000 as part of a group of 12 volunteers for Habitat for Humanity from across the United States. It was two years after the Good Friday Agreement that people throughout Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland voted on, and which reflected the desire for peace in the war-torn province.

Almost everyone in our country knows that Habitat for Humanity is an ecumenical Christian organization that builds homes with and for people in need. But in Belfast, Habitat wasn’t just building houses, it was building hope — by tearing down the invisible walls that separate the two communities. The group works on both sides of the “peace line,” the visible wall that divides Belfast. Protestants and Catholics in Habitat NI work together building a society where, in the words of the Apostle Paul, we “are all one in Christ.” That attitude was exemplified in the leadership of our host affiliate. The leader of our work project was a former Irish Republican Army partisan who courageously left the IRA after he had a change of heart and dedicated his life to rebuilding the neighborhoods he helped damage. His right-hand man was a Protestant Ulsterman who had served in the British Army in Northern Ireland.

St. Patrick mosaic in the Chapel of the Hoy Spirit, Belfast Catheral. Visit the website

Our second day in Belfast was a Sunday, and it’s been said that there is no day of the week when Christians are more segregated than on that day. Some of our team went to a Catholic church, while most of us went to the Anglican (Church of Ireland) Belfast Cathedral, also known as the Church of St. Anne. Its priest greeted us warmly and introduced us to the other communicants, calling special attention to two American women in our group who were Episcopal priests. He told us his church, whose motto is “Hope in the City,” gives thousands of pounds of pounds sterling each year to Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland. He also showed us a large and beautiful mosaic consecrated in 1932, commemorating the 1500th anniversary of the coming to Ireland of St. Patrick.

Although we attended separate churches on Sundays in Belfast, I was especially heartened when one of our American friends who had been living in Northern Ireland took us to his home, an ecumenical, intentional Christian community deliberately located exactly on the dividing line in Belfast. The Protestants and Catholics who lived together in that house also prayed together and took the sacraments together — in contradiction of Catholic teaching. One of the residents told us about he forgave the British soldier who shot and paralyzed his daughter, who became an advocate for peace.

We saw evidence of that spirit again during a visit to Derry (or Londonderry), where our tour guide was a Catholic republican whose first girlfriend and his cousin were both killed on Bloody Sunday. Since experiencing repentance, he led an interfaith worship group. He brought tears to some eyes, including mine, with his stories, including one about the significance of the nearby harbor in the story of John Newton, the slave ship captain who became a Christian cleric and wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.”

“Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

It so happened that our visit also coincided with a visit by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists, who was part of an international conference on meditation in Belfast. One day, while we were working on our house, we learned that he was going to be giving a speech on the peace line just a few blocks from our housing estate, so we all piled into our little blue bus and headed over to hear what he had to say.

The speech was bland, the kind of boilerplate one would expect from a syncretistic sermon. He said it was wrong to allow religious differences to divide us, and that violence is not the answer to problems.

What really touched me deeply, though, was the words of some children from a local school called Hazelwood Integrated College, who presented His Holiness a bouquet of flowers and thanked him for coming.

The kids’  words, unlike the Dalai Lama’s, moved me deeply because they came from the heart.

One of the students, Julie McCann, challenged the existence of the peace line walls and the spiritual walls that divide her people. “Break down these walls that separate us,” she said. “Tear down these walls of hatred and indifference.”

The other student, Patrick Fagan, prayed: “By the power of your Spirit, make us one. … Help us to do our part to bring peace to the world and happiness to all people.”

The event ended on a poignant note when a piper played “Amazing Grace” on the uileann and I remembered the story behind the song.

St. Patrick would have understood John Newton’s song of humility and appreciation of God’s unmerited favor because he knew what it was like to be lifted out of the mire, cleansed and put to good use in the work of the Kingdom — as an humble servant and a great witness to the God who is Love.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, I leave you with Patrick’s own words:


The Spirit elsewhere is a witness that even uncultivated ways have been created by the Most High—I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future. But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts.

Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and general affairs? He passed over these for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave me to them to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire lifetime if I am found worthy.

[The Celtic hymn, “Be Thou My Vision” is one I came to love while in Northern Ireland. We sang it often in our group worship and heard it sung in church. It is often one of the opening songs sung at the church I now attend, Apostles Anglican Church in Lexington, Ky. To hear it performed by Robin Mark, a Belfast worship leader, click on this link:

One Response to “In the spirit of St. Patrick and the Spirit who led him”

  • Curtis Absher:

    Thanks sharing those memories again. What an experience to be at the site of healing and being available to apply ointment to hastening the mending of the tear.

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