I am writing a biography of Fr Gerry Reynolds, a Redemptorist who served 32 years in Belfast’s Clonard Monastery. His ministry encompassed some of the most difficult days of the Troubles; and he dedicated himself to praying and working for an end to the violence. So I am perhaps more aware than most that today is the third anniversary of his death. I also am aware that while I began the biography a few months before he died, it is not yet finished! (I am due to complete before Christmas, with publication expected by June 2019.)
Reynolds is best known for his public ecumenical initiatives, which included the Clonard-Fitzroy Presbyterian Fellowship (which won the international Pax Christi Award in 1999), the Unity Pilgrims, the Cornerstone Community, and In Joyful Hope, which promotes Eucharistic fellowship among Catholics and Protestants.
Reynolds also worked with Fr Alec Reid. Reid was the Redemptorist who facilitated secret talks between Gerry Adams and John Hume. The Hume-Adams talks led on to contacts with the British and Irish Governments and are regarded as highly significant in the development of the peace process. Reynolds assisted Reid in some aspects of these talks and they also organised secret talks between Sinn Féin and Protestant clergy, which have been credited with facilitating republican understanding of unionism and Protestantism (and vice versa).
Reynolds also comforted those who suffered. Along with Methodist Rev Sam Burch, he visited bereaved families from both Protestant and Catholic traditions. It was tough to just keep going when any sort of end to violence – let alone progression to reconciliation – seemed a distant dream.
But while Reynolds demonstrated compassion, he also challenged people. There is a particularly powerful example of this in a sermon he preached at Clonard’s Holy Family Confraternity in 1994, in the aftermath of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires.
The sermon is a proclamation of hope – he says that ‘God is visiting his people’ at this juncture of history to bring an end to the violence. But the sermon is also a challenge – God expects his people to respond to his visitation by forgiving one another.
In light of the announcement earlier this week of the theme of the 2019 4 Corners Festival (31 January-10 February 2019), ‘Scandalous Forgiveness,’ I cannot describe the vision of forgiveness that Reynolds lays out in this sermon as anything less than scandalous.
He praises loyalists for including a ‘confession’ in their ceasefire statement and says ‘the nationalists too have a sin to confess.’ He asserts that the sins of all must be forgiven before we can arrive at any sort of reconciliation.
Exhortations for those who have been wounded or bereaved to ‘forgive’ are not always helpful; indeed, there is a risk that demanding forgiveness can re-victimise people. But I don’t think that should keep us from including discussion about forgiveness in the civic conversation. That’s what the 2019 4 Corners Festival aims to do. In that light, Reynolds’ sermon is as relevant a contribution today as it was in 1994. I’ve reproduced it below.
Sermon to the Holy Family Confraternity after the Ceasefires, 1994
Two things people say to me these days:
- You must be very glad peace has come
- Is it for real?
Who wouldn’t be glad? God has taken away our shame in all the earth, so that –
“Free from fear and saved from the hands of our foes we may serve him in holiness and justice all the days of our lives in his presence” as the Benedictus puts it.
The Benedictus is the morning prayer of the Church everywhere on earth – the prayer of Zachary, father of John the Baptist. That prayer expresses how I see our new situation and how I want to respond. It begins: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. He has visited his people and redeemed them.”
God “visits” us as individuals at various times in our lives. His visits shape our personal destiny – if we recognize and respond to them.
God visits us as a people at various times in our history – we are living through such a time; and it is right to give thanks over and over again for God’s visitation. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. He has visited his people and redeemed them.”
Our vocation and responsibility as the Redemptorist family is to recognize, to ponder and contemplate, to proclaim this visitation of God to us as a people, the “plentiful redemption’ which the God of Israel is doing among us at this time. Our crucified and risen Redeemer, Jesus our brother, the son of God and son of Mary, is at work among us through his Spirit, leading us into the freedom of the children of God – freedom from fear, from prejudice, from anger, from enmity towards one another. My dear brothers –
- Recognize God’s work with faith
- Gaze upon it with amazement and grateful love
- Surrender yourself and work with him in strong courageous hope
God is visiting us his people in this present time to heal wounds of anger, resentment and bitterness that go back for generations and centuries:
- Wounds that go back to the 12th Century and the days of St Lorcan O’Toole – the Archbishop of Dublin, when greedy cutthroat Norman barons came into Ireland and ravaged the people of his city
- Wounds that go back to the so-called “religious wars” of the 16th and 17th Centuries – the days of Blessed Conor O’Devaney, the Raphoe-born Franciscan, Bishop of Down and Connor for 30 years till his execution in Dublin in 1612
- Wounds that go back to the Plantation of Ulster and Cromwell’s devastation of the Catholic land-owners in the life time of St Oliver Plunkett
Lorcan O’Toole, Conor O’Devaney, Oliver Plunkett and many other saintly people down the years prayed and trusted in God to bring the day of forgiveness, right relationships and reconciliation between all the people of Ireland and between the people of Ireland and Britain.
God is at work among us in our time bringing the dawning of that day. God is visiting his people, answering their prayers of centuries past, the prayers of our own generation.
Political decisions are generally made from motives of self-interest. But God works in and through all our human decisions. And he brings good in his own time out of the evil done in time past.
We all recognize that the September 1st “complete cessation of military operations” by the IRA was a political decision of immense significance in our history as a people. That decision was made on political grounds and it was announced as a political decision. And that was good.
The statement which announced the Loyalist ceasefire on October 13th was more than a political statement. It was also a confession of sin and a confession of the mistrust, misunderstanding and malevolence that has blighted our history.
The reason, as I see it, why the Loyalist statement goes deeper than a political statement is that, in the quiet weeks since September 1st, Loyalists have become aware of the monstrous evil their political violence has been and they have said so. The Spirit of God – the Spirit of Truth and Love is at work in their hearts. God is visiting his people.
Mistrust, misunderstanding, malevolence from one community towards another begets the same evil in the other community. It’s the spiral of violence. So the nationalists too have a sin to confess. The Spirit of God in his mercy is making all aware of the need to confess our sin.
People ask me – will the peace last? Is it for real? How do I read the situation?
What I believe is this: if we build our peace on the conviction that in this time God is visiting his people and forgiving us all – making no distinction – and if – imitating God – we can forgive one another – then permanent and real our peace will certainly be.
The great marvellous, healing, liberating Truth of the Gospel is this: When God visits his people, he holds nothing against them. God visits in order to forgive and heal. So just as every single person is a forgiven person, so every single community is a forgiven community. But who will tell them the Good News from God? If God forgives us all, we owe it to him to forgive one another.
All those groups who have wronged and injured you over the years are forgiven by God. This is the fruit of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross. This is the meaning of his prayer: “Father, forgive them …”
So in visiting his people God forgives the UVF and the UFF; He forgives the RUC; He forgives the British Army. Will you rail at God and say to him, he should not forgive them? Will you say “shut your mouth” to Jesus praying on the cross, “Father, forgive them?”
In visiting his people God forgives the IRA the wrong they have done to others and perhaps to you.
How do we respond to this miraculous gift of God? As many do not know it – let us proclaim God’s gift day in, day out, that all sides may recognize his forgiveness and confess their sin with humble, contrite hearts.
May the compassion of God take hold of us all and deliver us from the anger and enmity that have arisen from so much wrongdoing and hurts. May forgiveness flow from the heart of each community towards the other like the water from the pierced heart of Jesus on the cross.
May this divine forgiveness flowing abundantly from us make new attitudes possible and bring new openness to one another and respect for one another. May it enable us to embrace one another as sinful but as forgiven brothers and sisters in the family of God. Our forgiveness of one another will make reconciliation a reality. It will enable our political leaders to create together new political structures that respect the diversity and channel the creativity that is round about us. And that will be for the good of all the people of Ireland and Britain.
(Disclaimer: I am on the board of the 4 Corners Festival)