Today is the first anniversary of the death of Fr Gerry Reynolds. Gerry was a Redemptorist priest based at Clonard Monastery in Belfast. His gentle, pastoral manner earned him the affection and respect of those who encountered him, while his contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process earned him international acclaim when the Clonard Monastery-Fitzroy Presbyterian Fellowship with which he was involved was awarded the international Pax Christi Award in 1999.
Four months before he died, Gerry’s friend Rev Ken Newell, the retired minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast, asked me to consider writing Gerry’s biography. Ken was completing his own autobiography, and had been encouraging Gerry to do the same. Gerry was reluctant, so Ken convinced him that they should ask me. We all had a chat together and discussed the project.
I’m an academic sociologist of religion, and I had never written a biography for a popular audience. But I was excited by the prospect. I thought Gerry’s story deserved to be told. His story could inspire Christians on the island of Ireland and further afield. His story could provide visions of what the church could be, and examples of how he had worked to make his visions realities.
The vision and example of modern Irish saints like Gerry are desperately needed as the churches in Ireland struggle to find their place in a secularizing, post-Catholic landscape. Gerry’s story could also appeal to people of no faith or who have left religion behind, helping them see that Christians can be fruitful partners in working for the common good.
A year on, I can report some work on this project. This has been based on the seven interviews I conducted with Gerry before his death, as well as some journals and papers he loaned me. I have more papers and journals to consult, and people to speak with, who can tell me more about Gerry.
With other work to attend to as part of my duties at Queen’s University, I cannot work on this project full-time. But every time I return to thinking about Gerry or reading his papers, I feel blessed and inspired.
In our interviews and in his journals, Gerry often wondered if the work he had done had ‘accomplished’ much. In a journal entry from 1998, Gerry wrote:
Today on house duty I met a woman who had been ‘shouted at’ in Clonard. She’s a widow in a relationship with a separated man – both strong believers. Her use of ‘hypocritical’ about her situation struck me. [Another woman] spoke about feeling ‘not worth much’ and being helped by Al-Anon. Thought I could write a book with that title.
Gerry was a visionary, but it was in his dedication to the small, everyday interactions that he so often inspired others. He may have felt that this ‘small’ work was ‘not worth much’. Yet his thought that he could write a book with that title indicates that he realized the cumulative value of small steps in the right direction.
So, one year on from his Gerry’s death, I think it’s worth asking ourselves if we’re taking steps towards his vision of reconciling the churches and peoples on this island. This journey can be challenging and lonely, but we are fortunate for the trail Gerry and others have blazed before us.