I was stunned and personally devastated to wake up Monday morning to the news that Fr. Gerry Reynolds, of the Redemptorist community at Clonard Monastery in Belfast, had died. He was 82.
I’d known Fr. Gerry for years living and working in Belfast. While we were not close friends, on several occasions he’d worked with or spoken to groups that I was part of or helping to facilitate. He also very generously gave his time to me while I was researching for my doctorate.
He was a quiet, deeply spiritual man, and his core belief in the unity of all Christian people, regardless of how many ways they thought up to divide themselves, was rooted in a deeply mystical understanding of the person of Christ, our bread and our body.
I have two vivid memories of Fr. Gerry that have stayed with me over the years:
The first is of a cold night in November 2005 in the church hall of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in South Belfast, at a public meeting with the Methodist minister, the Rev. Harold Good, and Fr. Alec Reid, the two official witnesses to the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA weapons. It was a tense night, full of suspicion and bad feelings. When questions were being taken from the crowd, Loyalist activist Willie Frazer made several badgering and hectoring comments directed at Fr. Reid. Reid lost his temper, accusing the Protestant community of treating the Nationalist community no better than animals and like Hitler treated the Jews. Frazer stormed out of the hall, leading many of his supporters with him. The event was hurriedly drawn to a close; Fr. Gerry, who’d also been on the platform, stepped forward and closed the evening with a call for prayer, particularly, he said, ‘for those that had walked out, that the grace of God would bear their hurt and bring healing to their hearts.’
The other memory is more personal; ironically, it was another cold November day. I was taking a group of people from various religious backgrounds up to Clonard Monastery in West Belfast to meet with Fr Gerry as part of a programme I was helping to facilitate. I had other errands to run and was going to be a wee bit late, so a colleague got them there on time. I arrived about 15 minutes late, found the large room they were meeting in, and slipped in quietly along the wall. Fr. Gerry kept chatting away with his slow, quiet Limerick accent. Then, about 10 seconds later, he paused and looked at me over his shoulder:
‘You’re very welcome, Jon. You’re very welcome’… He then went on speaking.
Both of these memories, I think, give glimpses at the quiet greatness of this man;
In the former, there was his unwavering belief that the heart of Jesus- and only the heart of Jesus- was capable of healing the hurts of humanity;
in the latter, there was the feeling I had- every single time I was with him- of a welcome in this world that was absolute.
Everything that Fr. Gerry ever said to me in some way reminded me of my value in the eyes of God…
What more epitaph can any human ever ask?
Fr. Gerry, though from Limerick, made Belfast his home-
not simply where he lived and ministered;
Ronald Wells’ 2005 book ‘Friendship Towards Peace: The Journey of Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds’, details the story of the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, a group of Presbyterians and Catholics who regularly met together for fellowship and prayer from 1984 to the present, through some of dark years of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Ken and Gerry’s genuine friendship was the linchpin for much of the Fellowship’s work.
Much of that work was done, if not in secret, then with care, quietly, and without much publicity. They were a small group- most people in their two churches did not participate, and their various church leaderships and hierarchies gave them only muted, tacit approval- if they approved of it at all.
Nevertheless, Fr. Gerry’s and Ken Newell’s work was recognized when they were awarded the Pax Christi peace prize in 1999 in recognition of the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship.
Personally, I think Wells’ book is a classic of peace literature- and particularly in Irish terms- for the simple reason that it draws attention to the role that civil society played in the building of a peace process. Most of the attention on the Irish peace process tends to focus on the role of politicians, political party leadership, and ex-combatants; these are the actors who are most often described (often by themselves) as indispensable.
While it’s certainly true that the role they did play was absolutely vital, it was no more vital than the one played by trade unions, community groups, faith-based organizations, academics, authors, journalists, artists, student groups, and locally-organized peace and reconciliation organizations. In the Irish context, it was very often these types of organizations- and the work of committed individuals within them- that laid important groundwork in paving the way to talks, the ceasefires, multi-party negotiations, and the Agreement.
It is also worth noting that much of the work done by those civil society groups was actively opposed, mocked as naïve, and sometimes violently attacked by the very politicians and combatants who were eventually held up as the ‘heroic’ figures once the negotiations were completed and the Good Friday Agreement signed.
Much of the work of civil society has been overlooked or never adequately recorded.
I was part of a project by the Corrymeela Community called ‘Up-Standers’, designed to record and make available as educational resources the actions of brave individuals during the conflict who made the courageous decision- often at the spur of the moment and at great personal risk- to do the right thing, save a life, diffuse tension, and build the peace. Many who took part were extremely humble, rarely seeing the importance of the small acts they did. Some were hesitant to speak, saying, ‘Ach, sure anyone would have done it.’
But few did. That was the point.
Some in Northern Ireland actively made the conflict worse;
some ignored the conflict altogether, saying it had nothing to do with them;
most just kept their head down and lived life as best they could.
Then there were those who actively worked to bring the conflict to an end, build the peace and, when the peace process moved forward, worked to foster reconciliation and to dismantle the sectarian infrastructure.
These are the Peacemakers.
Fr. Michael Hurley,
the Rev. Ken Newell,
Tomás Ó Fiaich,
Fr. Gerry Reynolds…
These and so many other men and women were- and are- true peacemakers in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Yet many of their contributions to peace- what they did and still do- are marginalized, sidelined, written out of the history.
The real peacemakers of this island are an inconvenient embarrassment to those who for decades blustered and blocked, who wrecked and ruined, and are now praised for their late- very, very late- contribution to making ‘peace’.
The latecomers to peace often refuse to acknowledge their own actions as destructive or violent, or when they do, are quick to rationalize their violence as ‘just’ and ‘inevitable’.
The real peacemakers bear witness to the idea that there were always alternatives to war, even as war and injustice were inflicted on us.
It indeed takes courage to lay down weapons; it also took courage to have never picked them up.
Fr. Gerry always acknowledged the courage of the former; not enough of them have acknowledged his and others’.
It is time for the full story of all of the peacemakers during the conflict to be told.
The death of this quiet, holy, courageous man is a chance to do that.
Rest in peace, Fr. Gerry…
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Jon Hatch is a theologian, educator, and activist. He spent 13 years living and working in North and West Belfast with various reconciliation projects sponsored by Corrymeela, the Irish Peace Centres, and local churches and faith-based groups. He blogs on issues relating to faith, politics, and culture at http://reflectionsforthursdays.blogspot.com.