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.
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 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.