An interview with Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR
Some years ago a hard-bitten journalist colleague remarked that it is difficult to ask Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR really tough questions because “the truth is that Gerry is a saint and in a sense he lives on a different planet from the rest of us”.
That person wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to remark on the saintly qualities of Fr Reynolds (78), native of Mungret, Co. Limerick and tireless worker for peace, reconciliation and Christian unity ever since he came to Clonard monastery off the Falls Road in west Belfast from the Redemptorist retreat in Athenry more than 30 years ago.
That was in 1983 and the place was a powder keg in the wake of the deaths of the 10 republican hunger strikers just two years before.
One has heard others remark that Fr Reynolds has touched them in a profound way and that he radiates a certain saintliness.
Pressed to comment on such observations Fr Gerry answers with the gentleness that appears to clothe him: “Those things happen. It’s not me, the Lord uses you and that’s it.”
He pauses before adding: “Every grace comes from the Spirit of God. You never know what you are doing or how you are touching people. That is true of every body, of every human being, of every baptised person.”
Clonard is situated directly behind a ‘peace wall’ separating the Falls from the Protestant Shankill Road and is a stone’s throw from Bombay Street where the burning of Catholic homes in 1969 played a major part in the creation of the Provisional IRA.
It has been described as ‘the cradle of the peace process’ because it hosted the seminal January 11, 1988 meeting between John Hume and Gerry Adams which had been instigated by Fr Gerry’s friend and colleague in Clonard, Fr Alex Reid CSsR who died in November.
The dialogue widened to include other SDLP and Sinn Féin leaders but ended without agreement in September 1988.
However, secret talks between Hume and Adams resumed in Clonard in 1993 after a request from Fr Reid to the SDLP leader.
This led ultimately to the December 1993 Joint Declaration by Albert Reynolds and John Major, the 1994 ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement.
To maintain secrecy “John Hume would come in the front door and Gerry Adams the back”.
I met Fr Reynolds, one of 15 Redemptorists in Clonard, in Parlour 4 the modest drawing room where many of the Hume/Adams meetings took place and where Adams and Martin McGuinness secretly met Tony Blair’s chief of staff on the eve of IRA decommissioning.
He describes Hume/Adams as “a Redemptorist initiative” which had been instigated by Fr Reid.
“As a congregation we have the freedom to take whatever initiative we believe is right for the sake of the Gospel.”
At the time “no one was talking to Sinn Féin despite their electoral mandate and this dilemma had to be overcome or there would be no political progress”.
“The Lord does not want us to be fighting full stop. It’s God’s will for us to live in peace and care for one another.”
He points out that Fr Reid’s peace ministry had the full backing of the Provincial Fr Raphael Gallagher CSsR and that Fr Reid had written a mission statement for it at the request of Cardinal O Fiaich.
Fr Reynolds defends Gerry Adams’s decision to deny that he was in the IRA.
“He took that line that it was none of your business whether [he] was in the IRA or not. That is a legitimate mental reservation.”
When it is put to him that some would say Mr Adams is lying he replied: “He’s entitled to that mental reservation, that he is not going to tell people that he doesn’t believe have any right to know.”
Fr Reynolds added that asking the Sinn Féin President and Louth TD if he was a member of the IRA or not “is such a stupid question” because the IRA was “a secret society and the raison d’etre of the secret society is that it is secret”.
Fr Reynolds said that the late Cardinal Cahal Daly’s refusal to meet Sinn Féin during the IRA campaign would have been supported “by a great proportion of the Catholic community” in the North notwithstanding the party’s electoral mandate.
He says he wasn’t involved directly in the political negotiations but “primarily in an ecumenical contribution” beginning in 1990-91 which saw the first ever direct talks between Protestant clergy, including Fitzroy Presbyterian Rev. Ken Newell and Methodist Minister Rev. Sam Burch and the republican movement led by Gerry Adams.
Even at this remove he is reluctant to name several of the other Protestant clergy involved.
Later he and Mr Newell would jointly received the Pax Christi International Peace Award in recognition of the grassroots reconciliation fostered by Clonard Fitzroy Fellowship born in the hunger strike years of 1981.
In July 1994 Fr Reynolds and Fr Reid made headlines when they attended the funeral of UDA member and UDP chairman Raymond Smallwood who had served a prison sentence for the attempted murder of Bernadette McAliskey and had been murdered by the IRA.
“He was committed to a peaceful way forward and Fr Alex and I had met him in UDA HQ not long before.” Fr Reynolds had also prayed at his wake.
On recent events he says that the North’s five executive parties “must keep working at it” to find the agreement which had eluded US mediator Dr Richard Haass.
He declines to point the finger at unionists asking what is gained by “blaming people who cannot go with a particular resolution in conscience”.
“There is something in the human being that if you give me the justice I need I will give you the justice that you need.”
Alongside peace-making and normal pastoral duties Fr Reynolds’ abiding passion is working for Christian unity.
Speaking ahead of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity he is proud of his Catholic Unity Pilgrims initiative believed to be the only one of its kind in these islands if not in the world.
Virtually every Sunday since November 1994 – when Fr Gerry spontaneously made the first trip to West Kirk Presbyterian Church across the peace line on the Shankill Road – around a dozen Clonard Catholics often including Gerry himself – visit a Shankill Protestant Church and attend worship.
“We first meet in prayer in Clonard reciting together Fr Paul Couturier’s Prayer for Unity in Christ Jesus and then travel to a Presbyterian, Methodist or Church of Ireland congregation where we are publicly welcomed.
“We look for nothing in return, only that God be glorified by the witness of our love. Unity pilgrims are pastoral agents of the Holy Spirit mending the torn net of the Church.”
One suspects his prayer is that Protestants will one day make a similar journey to Clonard.
Fr Gerry has also been instrumental in launching In Joyful Hope: A New Step in Eucharistic Communion which involves four Eucharistic celebrations in different Catholic and Protestant Churches in the Belfast area over a year.
It has the backing of various Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist clergy and significantly Bishop Anthony Farquhar, chairman of the Bishops’ Conference’s Council for Ecumenism.
Fr Gerry stresses: “We firmly believe the joy of being present at the Eucharistic worship of another Christian tradition is greater than the pain experienced by observing the Eucharistic discipline involved and not being able to share fully in the celebration. I was already aware of this through being present at Sunday worship as a Catholic Unity Pilgrim.”
What has stood out most during his 53 years as a priest?
“The absolute conviction that the God of infinite goodness is with us.”
He then reaches for his favourite words from Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: “The invisible God from the fullness of His love addresses human beings as His friends and moves among them to invite them and receive them into His company.”
For Gerry Reynolds that is what human life is all about.