The island of Ireland lost one of its great ambassadors for peace today with the passing of Fr Gerry Reynolds.
Fr Reynolds, a Redemptorist priest based at Clonard Monastery in West Belfast for more than 30 years, is well known for his long and patient work promoting reconciliation among Christians. He was 82.
Fr Reynolds’ pioneering work includes the Unity Pilgrims (a group of Catholics who worship at Protestant churches on Sunday mornings); the Clonard-Fitzroy Presbyterian Fellowship, which he developed along with Rev Ken Newell during the most difficult days of the Troubles; and the ‘In Joyful Hope’ initiative, which promotes shared Eucharist/communion. Fr Reynolds was also involved with the ecumenical Cornerstone Community, prison ministry, and ministry with Travellers.
He was a friend and confidant of the late Fr Alec Reid, who brokered behind-the-scenes peace talks between Gerry Adams and John Hume during the 1980s. These talks are seen as important precursors to the peace process. Fr Reynolds also helped organise quiet dialogues among Sinn Fein politicians and Protestant clergy, which were important in opening lines of communication and promoting understanding.
Back in July, Rev Newell approached me about writing Fr Reynolds’ biography. Newell has an autobiography due out in April, and he thought Fr Reynolds’ story also should be told. I met with both men, and Fr Reynolds agreed to the project.
I’ve since had the privilege of interviewing Fr Reynolds seven times, and beginning to read through his diaries and collections of papers. We had another interview planned for later this week. While I regret that Fr Reynolds won’t live to help me complete the project, I will do my best to do justice to his story.
Rev Newell has spoken movingly about Fr Reynolds on news programmes and reports already today, describing his friend as a visionary who inspired others to work for peace. He talked about how Fr Reynolds always had his ‘feet in the clouds’ as he shared with others his dreams of Christians from all traditions seeing each other as brothers and sisters. Fr Reynolds’ legacy will only endure if there are other Christians who take it upon themselves to continue this work.
Fr Reynolds grew up on a farm in Limerick. His father died when he was six, and his mother admirably took over the duties of work and family. Two of his uncles were Redemptorist priests, including a Fr Gerard Reynolds who once served as rector at Clonard, beginning a proto-ecumenical ‘mission to non-Catholics’ there in 1948. Ireland almost lost our Fr Gerry Reynolds to the foreign missions as he first considered joining the Kiltegan Fathers, but his uncles’ suggestion to join the Redemptorists won out in the end.
In reading Fr Reynolds’ diaries and papers, I have been struck above all by the depth of his spiritual life, including his regular prayer, devotion to the three persons of the Trinity, the nourishment he gained through his involvement with the Jesus Caritas Priests Fraternity, and the inspiration he drew from the witness of the nuns of the Little Sisters of Jesus.
He maintained a sense of wonder at the goodness of God and a firm belief that being faithful in the little things that make for peace would bear plentiful fruit. In his journal from 1986, he responded to riotous protests (inspired by the Rev Ian Paisley) at an ecumenical service by praying for Rev Paisley.
Much will be said and written about Fr Reynolds in the coming days. I want to end with his own words, taken from his remarks at an event marking the awarding of the international Pax Christi Award to the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship in 1999:
In Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship we are learning that the destiny of Christians in Northern Ireland is to help make an end of the Reformation conflict. We discover that those we used to call “outsiders” are truly “brothers and sisters” in Christ and that we hold our traditions not against but for one another. We are learning that “Love one another as I have loved you” is a call to us not only as individual persons, but also as congregations and communities of the Church. We need to become explorers like Abraham. For the Catholic congregations the promised land is among their Protestant brothers and sisters; for the Protestant congregations it is among their Catholic brothers and sisters.
As we reflect on and celebrate Fr Reynolds life, we should still ask the questions he asked then:
… We have questions to ask ourselves. In the clash of values in the last generation why did the non-violent civil rights movement succumb to the ethnic political violence? Why did the Churches fail to hold the Civil Rights struggle in the non-violent way of Jesus? It has been said that “Divided Churches cost lives.” We need to analyse such questions with a view to gaining wisdom – not to judge any group, but rather to leave the judgement to God!
Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com