St Patrick's Christian message should be shared by all of us
Next Thursday we will be celebrating St Patrick's Day, but how much do we really know about our patron saint, and what can he still teach us today?
The lack of knowledge about him is still staggering, and only this week a mural of St Patrick by the distinguished artist and sculptor Ross Wilson was unveiled in a loyalist area to help overcome misconceptions about who he was.
The idea of "sainthood" rests uneasily with those Protestants who think it is somehow a Roman Catholic "invention", even though the major New Testament saints, including Paul, are part of the bedrock of the Reformed faith.
There are also misconceptions among some people that St Patrick was Irish, even though he came from the west coast of Britain. He was a Roman citizen and a member of a well-to-do family before he was captured and sold into service in Ireland, possibly in the Antrim area around Slemish.
His life story is one great adventure, including his escape from slavery, his long walk to find a boat out of Ireland, his return home and then his miraculous dream, where he was inspired to return as a Christian missionary to convert souls in Ireland.
As such, he was one of the first migrants to our island, which should give us all food for thought. St Patrick founded the Christian church in the Armagh area, and later moved east to Downpatrick.
Even though there is a service each year on March 17 at his supposed grave in Downpatrick, there is no hard evidence that he is buried there, or that he visited Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, or even half of the places in Ireland with which his name is associated.
Despite this, his example lives on, and he is one of the major Christian figures common to both main denominations in Ireland.
This is symbolised by the two St Patrick's Cathedrals, one Protestant and the other Catholic, in Armagh.
This would have been inconceivable to Patrick, who belonged to the ancient Catholic Church, centuries before it became the Roman Catholic Church.
The best picture of our patron saint is contained in his autobiographical Confessio, which is written in rudimentary Latin and in which he comes across as a humble man with a strong faith in God and a deep knowledge of the Bible.
As such, he is an inspiring example to all of us, and yet it is tempting to ask how far we have fallen from the high Christian standards which he displayed in his demanding and eventual life.
Certainly, he did not advocate the murder of security forces as a badge of Irish republicanism, as some zealots are doing today with their sick idea of celebrating the centenary of the 1916 Rising in blood.
In contrast, St Patrick exhorted the people of Ireland to follow the Christian example of respect and tolerance for their neighbours, and happily it is this picture of our patron saint which is best remembered, and which is most appropriate for our time.
So, next week when you commemorate St Patrick inside or outside a church, or at a sports event or a parade, spare a thought for this exceptional man who showed us all how to live better.
We have largely let him down ever since, certainly on the island of Ireland, with our continued violence, political and religious bickering, and sectarianism.
It is slowly getting better, but there is still a long way to go. Does anyone in Sinn Fein really think that a return to violence could be justified?