A Quiet Peacemaker

Martin O’Brien speaks to a priest leading the way on ecumenism in Northern Ireland, Fr Martin Magill

When Belfast parish priest Fr Martin Magill was invited by the artist Susan Hughes to be painted for her much acclaimed quiet peacemakers exhibition, his immediate response revealed a clue to one of his great passions, something that has become an increasingly fundamental part of his ministry since he began pastoring in this very divided city more than a quarter of a century ago.

That passion is for ecumenism, the effort as someone once said “to reconcile in truth and bring the Churches together”.

Speaking in his presbytery in Sacred Heart parish close to Ardoyne in a part of north Belfast that suffered grievously in the Troubles, Fr Magill recalled that he had been touched to be asked to feature in the exhibition and that he had been recommended to Hughes by someone from an evangelical Protestant background.

However, he told Hughes that he would only agree to have his portrait painted “if a [Protestant] woman I would describe as a definite peacemaker is also painted”.

That woman is Joan Trew, of the Church of Ireland/Methodist church on the predominantly loyalist  Monkstown estate on the outskirts of north Belfast who instigated the idea of her parish and Fr Magill’s former parish, St Oliver Plunkett in west Belfast, coming together to knit Christmas trees for one another.


Joan showed the sort of commitment to inter-Church togetherness that warmed the heart of Fr Magill, a passionate ecumenist who would hardly be bested in how seriously he takes Christ’s own prayer close to the end of his life: “May they all be one, as you Father are in me and I am in you. May they be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21).

With the benefit of hindsight, Fr Magill (53), one of the region’s best known priests and a regular broadcaster and tweeter, thinks that his love for ecumenical endeavour stems from his upbringing in the religiously mixed townland of Ballymacilhoyle close to the international airport at Aldergrove.

“Where I grew up it was normal for Catholics, Presbyterians, Church of Ireland and Methodists to live side by side.”

Years later, after spells at St Malachy’s College and at Queen’s University during some of the most horrific years of the troubles Martin Magill would find that latent yearning for inter-Church and cross-community togetherness spring to life within him. 

It happened when Bishop Cahal Daly of Down and Connor decided that he should  study for a one-year Master’s degree in ecumenism at the Angelicum University in Rome after he had graduated in theology from the Gregorian University in 1987.

Bishop Daly had discerned that a qualification in ecumenism was “more relevant to the situation” that Martin would be facing back as a newly-ordained priest in divided Belfast than the two year licence in Biblical theology that he had set his heart on, partly because he had grown to love Rome and the Irish College.

Looking back he says that it has only been in the last few years he has fully appreciated the value of that MA in ecumenism.  “It awakened my desire to explore the whole question of Anglican orders, of ARCIC [the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission] and the Lima Document [an important WCC statement on Baptism, Eucharist and ministry].”

He adds: “It left me with an appreciation of the other [Christian] denominations and how they are manifestations of Christ’s Church” echoing Vatican II’s teaching that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the Catholic Church’s] visible structure”.

Fr Magill’s determination to push the boundaries in terms of ecumenical outreach is evident from his practice of what the late Michael Hurley SJ called “ecumenical tithing”.

This means that part of his time each week, usually on a Sunday afternoon or evening is devoted to worshipping in another Christian denomination, sometimes St George’s Church of Ireland in Belfast “a very beautiful very high church”.

He believes this commitment comes from “the imperative I get from Jesus Christ in John 17”.

Fr Magill reveals that it is “only a matter of time before I will worship in a Free Presbyterian church as part of ecumenical tithing”.

He is also working on a list of tn things that Catholics can learn  from other denominations and “top of the list is welcoming because 90% of churches do welcoming better then we Catholics”, followed by singing.

Fr Magill is grateful that Belfast today does not resemble “the dreadful years” of 1973-1980 when he and his fellow pupils at St Malachy’s couldn’t go down town for fear of trouble and only wore their ties and their removable school badges in the precincts of the college lest their Catholic identity  triggered an unprovoked sectarian attack.

His hope and joy at the declaration of the 1994 ceasefire and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is reflected in framed newspaper front pages from those days on the wall of his room but, like so many people, he finds the current political stalemate and the quality of political discourse on programmes like the BBC’s The Stephen Nolan Programme “wearisome.

“When a river is not flowing there is stagnancy and there is stagnation. We need a new type of language from the politicians. What I am missing more than anything at the moment is a spirit of generosity.”

Fr Magill, one of a family of three whose parents are deceased, has always worked in Belfast  and as a parish priest first in St Oliver Plunket from 2003 to 2013 – where he immediately inaugurated the annual St Oliver Plunkett lecture – and now in Sacred Heart where he has made a demonstrable contribution to wider civic society.

Last year with Presbyterian minister Rev Steve Stockman he co-founded the 4 Corners Festival which “promotes unity and reconciliation” against the background of the legacy of the Troubles and the challenges of today. It is deliberately scheduled around the time of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity so the 2015 events begin at the end of next month.

“This time our theme is generosity and imagination and we will be asking what generosity actually looks like.”

Fr Magill is of course first and foremost a pastor to around 7,500 souls in Sacred Heart parish, and  he estimates just 15-20% of them attend church regularly.

As in the vast majority of parishes these days, he is the only priest – the parish once had a parish priest and three curates.

He says that Catholics generally have yet to cotton on to the fact that priests just can’t deliver anything like the service they once did and speaks about “a new model of Church” taking shape as signalled by the creation of pastoral communities in Down and Connor and an emphasis on “an all-member ministry in which everyone in the parish is encouraged to see the part they can play”.


He sees members of the parish Bereavement Group, for example, playing an increasing role in officiating at prayers in the bereaved home and at the graveside.

He clearly loves his work, has a collaborative approach and uses his bicycle to get round his parish.

The main “coal-face issues” he is grappling with are around loneliness, bereavement, a low level of educational qualifications, unemployment, financial worries and, tragically, suicide.

He is heartened by “the more pastoral language” of Pope Francis who “has changed the atmosphere in how the Church is perceived”.

While Fr Magill “deeply values the gift of celibacy”, like many others he feels it should be optional and is mindful of the giftedness of married pastors in the Reformed and Orthodox traditions.

We started with the Quiet Peacemakers, an exhibition of portraits featuring largely unsung figures who have worked unobtrusively in the cause of peace and reconciliation.

It has a final month-long run that begins in Belfast City Hall on Monday, December 15.

By the time the exhibition ends, Fr Martin Magill, ecumenist and quiet peace-maker will be already firmly focussed on the remaining two weeks in January which will see respectively the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the beginning of the 4 Corners Festival.

They both represent and signify values and commitments he takes very seriously and chime with the needs – if not the wants – of Northern Ireland at this time.