Review of One Man, One God: The Peace Ministry of Fr Alec Reid

For many years the labours that constituted Fr Alec Reid’s (1931-2013) life work remained behind closed doors. It had to be that way: what he was doing was much too sensitive to be public knowledge.

We have known for some time that Reid instigated secret talks that helped kick-start the Northern Ireland peace process. He also had a hand in drafting documents that would become a basis for political negotiations and ultimately the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

 

A new book documents Reid’s achievements: One Man, One God: The Peace Ministry of Fr Alec Reid CSsR (Redemptorist Publications, 2017), by Reid’s fellow Redemptorist, Martin McKeever.

One Man, One God is a four-part account that provides:

1) historical context about Reid’s ministry in Belfast’s Clonard Monastery;

2) analysis of how his personal faith drove his actions,

3) testimonials by others (Mary McAleese, Gerry Adams, Harold Good, Martin Mansergh, among others) about his impact, and

4) texts of key documents written by Reid, including that of the original letter he wrote to John Hume about starting what have become known as the Hume-Adams Talks.

The publication is not a biography; indeed, Reid’s early life is hardly mentioned. So readers interested in what shaped him as a young man or may have contributed to his later passion for peace will be left with questions.

Rather, One Man, One God is presented as a ‘first book’ on Reid. This indicates its intent to serve as a foundation for future research on his contributions.  Indeed, McKeever’s careful historical account, the testimonials, and the documents provide excellent foundations for future scholars. This is the first time many of these documents have been publicly available.

Part two of the book, ‘Reflecting in Faith,’ constitutes what will be this book’s unique contribution to understanding Reid’s role in the peace process.

As was emphasised by the speakers at the launch of the book in Clonard Monastery last month, Reid saw his work as integral to his Christian vocation. If we don’t understand Reid’s faith, we won’t understand how or why Reid did what he did.

The basis of this part of the book is McKeever’s reflection on the text of a lecture given by Reid in 1993 in St Clement’s Retreat House, Belfast, titled ‘The Role of the Servant of Christ in a Situation of Political Conflict.’ [This lecture also is reproduced in full in the documents section.]

McKeever draws parallels between Jesus’ example of engaging with ‘prostitutes and sinners’ and Reid’s willingness to open dialogue with ‘terrorists and paramilitary organisations’ (p. 69). To illustrate, he quotes from Reid’s lecture (p. 68):

Jesus was prepared to share his company with anybody who was prepared to share his or her company with him, no matter how good, bad or indifferent their relationship with God and their fellow men and women might be.

And then McKeever comments (p. 69):

Here again the text and the ministry are mutually revealing: following the example of Jesus, Fr Alec chose to offer companionship to those involved in conflict before the conflict was resolved – indeed with a  view to trying to resolve it. On the other hand, if we imagine the kind of hysterical attacks made on those who engaged in the peace process because they were talking to those associated with violence, we can understand, or rediscover, the way many righteous people reacted to Jesus. For us today the figure of ‘prostitutes and sinners’ has become a bit pale and innocuous because so often used, with the consequence that it no longer causes real scandal. If we replace it with ‘terrorists and paramilitary organisations’ we might be closer to grasping a disturbing but central dimension of the Gospel.

Ultimately, McKeever argues that Reid’s life – including this willingness to talk with ‘terrorists’ – is  an example the ‘lived Gospel.’ He writes: ‘the actions and words of Fr Alec were in effect another way of doing what Jesus Christ did and said …’ (p. 59).

Of course, others might dispute that this is what Jesus would do. But the key point to grasp is that Reid understood his undertaking as his way of following Jesus – and this is what kept him going through years of failures and disappointments.

Throughout, there are hints at how much Reid’s efforts cost emotionally and physically: he was so exhausted after ministering to prisoners during the hunger strikes that the Redemptorists removed him from Belfast and it was assumed his health would never allow him to return.

But Reid – and his faith – were made of stronger stuff.

Reid’s strength is illustrated on the occasion in 1988 when he tried to stop the murder of two British Army corporals. This event was a centrepiece of the excellent 2013 documentary 14 Days. The iconic photograph of Reid blessing one of the dead soldiers is on the back cover of the book.

In his review of One Man, One God, Rev Steve Stockman from Fitzroy Presbyterian draws our attention to that photograph, writing:

In this photo we see a servant of Christ, a man following Jesus. He is following Jesus on the bloody streets of the conflict around him. This is incarnation; God coming alive, through his servant, in our neighbourhoods.

But McKeever doesn’t want us to stop and merely admire the example of Reid – neither does Stockman for that matter.

Stockman, whose review constitutes the first in a new series of bi-weekly columns in the Irish News by the founders of the 4 Corners Festival, writes that anyone who ‘stumbles or tumbles’ after Jesus would benefit from reflecting on Reid’s life.

McKeever puts it even more strongly, arguing that there is ‘a disturbing truth’ in Reid’s story (p. 75):

God’s glorious revelation of God in the peace ministry of Fr Alec is not fully complete without our response.

With these words, McKeever challenges the reader to move from admiration to imitation. This challenge points to another disturbing truth: the work of peace remains incomplete, and it’s up to us to continue it.

Disclaimer: I am writing a biography of Reid’s Redemptorist colleague, Fr Gerry Reynolds, and I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival.

  • hgreen

    Great post.

  • aquifer

    Peace should not have to depend on the presence or not of remarkable individuals. It may be fitting that a conflict that was initiated by a preference by Charlie Haughey for traditional Catholic terrorists over secular socialist revolutionaries should be resolved by one connected to that church. Hume Adams has been a disaster for the SDLP.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Aquifer, the problem is that it is the actions of individuals which brings things about, for good or ill. Remarkable individuals can by either will power or by charisma turn back the intense momentum of something lazily accepted by others, through the active changing of minds.

    I’m no quite sure how conflict could have been diminished without strong human agency at work to do this. While I did not meet Fr. Reid, I knew his associate Fr Gerry Reynolds in the period before his death, and Gerry’s sheer determination for harm to end from whatever quarter was inspirational.

  • aquifer

    The interests of institutions often shape the actions of individuals. The IRA campaign was sinful, but it also risked tarnishing nationalist and catholic traditions in Ireland in its disgrace or defeat. The actions of Fr Reid can be viewed as a both a moral and material rescue mission for his Church in its important constituencies in Ireland and America. Did he run more personal risks than an honest RUC or UDR man?

  • Granni Trixie

    Whilst I admire Fr Reynolds I do not think it helpful to compare the two.

  • Abucs

    A humble man that many of us unfortunately did not appreciate at the time.

  • Granni Trixie

    Following the funeral in St Paul’s of Mrs McConville, I observed that when Fr Reid reached out to embrace her daughter outside the church, Helen brushed him off and did not speak to him as did a well known SDLP politican also. Acts at odds
    with him having been a co celebrant at the funeral mass. I think it illustrates
    that the jury is out in some people’s eyes on Fr Reid’s
    contribution.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Of course institutions are a factor, but I’d still feel that the influence of particular personalities would be the very fabric of the functioning of even those institutions. They are, after all, simply the clothing worn by human agency to effect things, although the “persona” any institution will foster in an individual will always be a reflection of what other individuals have made it into over time.

    Regarding layers of motivation, as Louis Saint-Just stated: “On ne peut point régner innocemment: la folie en est trop évidente.” Nothing is ever going to be pure and unqualified, and all motives are going to be affected by the requirements of the whole range of those pragmatic commitments which personalities has given themselves to.

  • Fraser Holmes

    Or more simply, self interest dressed up as a moral impiritive.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    FYI, priests don’t get pay rises based on the worthiness of their efforts. Maybe it was all due to ego of course … or maybe it was constructive, positive, valuable and benevolent driven by the impErAtive of saving lives?

  • Glenn
  • Fraser Holmes

    I was attempting to summarise SON’s second para but my smell checker let me down.

    While we are on the subject I have met many ‘men of the cloth’ and most appear to be good people, but organised religion is a different matter. Like governments and big business the organisation comes first, individuals second, for example the attempted cover up of child sex abuse by various Christian churches.

    I find GT’s comment on Fr Reid disquieting

  • the rich get richer

    In fairness the Ira were pretty much beaten and needed a way out

    I suppose he was involved in the choreography of that……..

  • John Collins

    The start of the troubles went back as far 1966 and Gusty Spence and his friends. That was long before Charlie ever got involved.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    It’s not a direct comparison Granni, but I found that if Gerry Reynolds was at all correct in his evaluation of Fr Reid, then I had to seriously qualify my earlier opinion gleaned from media sources. As I say, I did not meet Fr Reid, and I am open minded about anything which might in turn qualify my current impressions. Truth in our community is never less than a series of those Chinese ivory balls, where the one which is encountered below the outer ball will inevitably run in an opposite direction.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    You can perhaps see why I am unwilling to strip it down to so tight a definition as you have done. I’d believe his motives to have been much more layered, and accordingly too tight a charge of cynicism would be just as much of a lie as would a rather more hagiographic interpretation.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    With a few bishops amongst my own ancestors, I’d be inclined to broadly agree with your second paragraph, but my own second hand encounter with Fr. Reid was not only through the media, but also through a few people who knew him well, such as Fr. Gerry Reynolds. Their version of Fr Reid qualified my previous impressions significantly. As I’ve said above, I believe Reid’s motivation to have been layered, and not easily pinned down to something less complex.

  • JOHN TURLEY

    No, It was the useless sucessors of Hume that was a disaster for the S.D.L.P none of them
    fit to lace his boots.