Wednesday evening’s service of Ecumenical Celebration and Thanksgiving at Clonard Monastery in Belfast embodied the undivided church that was for Fr Gerry both a vision and a practical reality. Christians from a multitude of traditions and people of other faiths were in attendance to mark his passing, to remember him, and to reflect on how his legacy can be carried forward.
Rev Ken Newell, a former minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian and a friend of Fr Gerry for more than three decades, described Fr Gerry as a ‘radical saint’ who ‘had visited more Protestant churches than any Catholic priest in the history of Ireland.’
Indeed, it was Fr Gerry’s gentle presence among his Protestant sisters and brothers that was such a powerful witness of a church united, even in its differences.
The pair was instrumental in developing the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, which won the international Pax Christi award in 1999. Their story was well-told in the aptly-titled book by Ronald Wells, Friendship Towards Peace.
Newell challenged those present to ask themselves: ‘What is it about Fr Gerry that God wants us to take home?’
Newell said that the message of Fr Gerry’s life is:
‘Do not settle for a comfortable conservatism. … You are more than that. … You can always go further, climb higher. There’s a dream in every single person if you listen closely to the whispers of the Spirit.
… Gerry’s life was a sacrament of grace. We encounter God in the people of faith [like Gerry] who lift us up so we can walk on mountains.
… Gerry was gripped by a radical vocation of turning strangers into friends. That is what reconciliation is. And that is what transforms the church and the community.
… Gerry challenges us if we don’t have friends from the other tradition, to think about reorganising our lifestyle.
… A radical gospel burned in the heart of Fr Gerry. These words from Ephesians could have been Gerry’s creed: There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. There is one God who is Father of all.
… We need to choose that as our radical lifestyle.’
Rev Lesley Carroll, minister at Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian in North Belfast, described how in 1990 Fr Gerry invited her to participate in behind-the-scenes dialogues with Sinn Fein politicians. Carroll admitted that as a young evangelical from Tyrone she was ‘terrified’ at the prospect, but Fr Gerry told her: ‘We need women, so you have to come.’
Carroll paid tribute to Fr Gerry’s vision of a church with women and men as equals, relating how he encouraged her in her vocation: ‘He wanted women to be in on the act and he helped me remain true to my calling.’
Wednesday’s service also featured readings from the Gospels by women – Val Newell and Janice Stockman – which from a (Catholic) theological perspective would be considered radical.
Carroll said Fr Gerry also inspired her subsequent peace work: ‘He made a tremendous difference to my ministry and mission. … He put a call on my ministry of reconciliation.’
‘Gerry never wanted to be acclaimed … or sought attention. … He wanted to do what the Lord had called him to do in the ordinary relationships of life.
… The truth is, if we live as we are called, this is the best we as human beings can do if we want to change the world.’
Rev Sam Burch was a Methodist minister involved with Fr Gerry in the Cornerstone Community on the peaceline in West Belfast. He first met Gerry in 1986 when he telephoned him and asked if he would go with him to visit the family of Denis Taggart, a UDR man who had been shot dead in front of his son.
Though they had not met before, Burch accompanied him on this compassionate visit, where Fr Gerry gave Taggart’s mother a carving of a weeping Jesus.
In introducing Burch, Ed Petersen, who works at Clonard on its Reconciliation projects, said that Fr Gerry told this story frequently to groups who visited to learn about the peace process – and he would be brought to tears every time.
Burch recalled how it was the first of many visits over the years:
‘We visited over 50 homes. The suffering and the anguish wrenched your soul. But we felt we had a mandate from those homes to speak to the paramilitary people. … In our meetings [of clergy] with Sinn Fein we shared that pain and anguish.’
Burch also told a story about how they organised ‘demonstrations to try and shock local churches to make more of an effort.’ One memorable walk began with Fr Gerry leading Catholics from Dunville Park and Rev Burch leading Protestants from Woodvale Park to meet at the peace wall’s Northumberland gate for a ‘love feast’ of tea and buns.
A ‘protest group’ followed Burch’s entourage, shouting ‘No Peace with Rome!’ all the way down the road.
Nowadays, a walk like this would be unlikely to attract the protesters who opposed Fr Gerry and other ecumenical peacebuilders over the years. This may be progress, of sorts.