The vision of modern Irish saints needs to be told, Martin O’Brien learns
By any standards, Dr Gladys Ganiel, a distinguished Queen’s University Belfast academic, formerly of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, must be among the most remarkable Americans ever to have made their home in Ireland.
One of the foremost sociologists of religion in the English-speaking world and a committed Christian with a mission to ‘Building a Church Without Walls’ (as the tagline of her personal website proclaims) she is also an elite runner who runs to work from her home in west Belfast.
Her main areas of research are “the Northern Ireland conflict, evangelicalism, Christianity in Ireland, the emerging church, and charismatic Christianity in Zimbabwe and South Africa”.
Northern evangelicalism was the subject of her PhD from UCD which she developed into her first book, having earlier attained a Master’s there.
Dr Ganiel, who came to Ireland in 1999, represented Ireland at the 2018 and 2016 European Athletics Championships (marathon and half marathon) and Northern Ireland in the marathon at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and just missed out on joining the Irish Rio Olympics team.
In May, she made headlines in Ireland and in her native Maine, USA, when she ran the fastest ever time by a Northern Ireland-based female in the 37 years of the Belfast City Marathon, securing a personal best time of 2:37:32 at the age of 42.
Gladys’ prowess in track and field saw her secure a scholarship to fund her primary degree in political science at Providence College, Rhode Island and then win the annual prestigious Walter Byers award in 1999 made respectively to the top male and female student athlete in the US.
This enabled her to pursue post graduate studies anywhere in the world and she chose Dublin, prompted by her interest in the peace process that had been fuelled by the central involvement of former Senator for Maine, George Mitchell, a role model, who visited her high school on several occasions.
Gladys, married to Brian O’Neill and mother of their son, Ronan, (4), sees her participation in athletics “as another way to be involved in the community, participating in a genuinely cross-community sport that promotes a healthy lifestyle”.
That commitment to the wider community is exemplified in her continuing contribution, as a member of the board of directors and the organising committee, of the inter-Church Belfast 4 Corners Festival, co-founded by Fr Martin Magill and Presbyterian minister, Rev Steve Stockman, that follows the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity each year.
It seems fitting that for the past four years she’s held the post of Research Fellow at Queen’s University’s Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice given that Mr Mitchell chaired the negotiations that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“A particular pleasure today is hosting the master class he gives to the students of the Institute each year.”
Dr Ganiel, whose stint in the Institute concludes in September when she begins a lectureship in the QUB School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, has been a prolific research scholar in the Institute, with eight significant publications planned in the coming year, including further research into her own pioneering work on what she has coined “Extra-Institutional Religion”.
She has written three books including Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2016) and co-authored four others with a major work, Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles (co-author Dr Jamie Yohanis) that examines how the conflict impacted Presbyterians from various backgrounds, due to be published by Merrion Press in November.
There have been numerous other publications including a survey that showed that most Irish people believed Pope Francis did not do enough to address clerical abuse in Ireland during his visit.
Dr Ganiel says Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland showed that “a dominant, traditional form of Irish Catholicism is being displaced” but that “the Catholic Church continues to loom large over the whole island”.
What struck her as she analysed the interviews “was that people could not stop talking about the Catholic Church. They might no longer, nor have ever been, part of the Irish Catholic Church, but it was clear that it mattered to them but in different ways than before”.
In the book she developed the concept of “extra-institutional religion” which “captures how people’s experiences and practices were so often described not only as outside or in addition to the Catholic Church (extra), but also in the Irish Catholic Church’s own terms (institutional). It conveys how people still used the Catholic Church as a reference point or a resource, even as they critiqued it or tried to escape from it”.
Asked to elaborate she says, “a vast swathe of cultural Catholics use the Church as a service provider for Baptisms, [first] Holy Communions and weddings…rites of passage”.
She avers that “if the institutional Church wants to survive there has to be much more radical reform than what seems likely in the immediate future”.
Dr Ganiel has been in the spotlight for more than her running in recent weeks be-cause of the publication of her latest book Unity Pilgrim (Redemptorist Communications), her meticulously researched biography of Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsR, the Irish ecumenist pioneer and peacemaker who died suddenly in 2015.
Fr Reynolds, a Limerick native, ministered in Belfast for more than 30 years, from the Redemptorist base at Clonard Monastery.
Four months before Fr Reynolds’ death, she was invited to write the book by Rev. Ken Newell, minister emeritus of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast and Fr Gerry’s close friend and collaborator in reconciliation.
Given the suddenness of Fr Gerry’s death it was fortunate that Dr Ganiel wasted no time in getting down to work.
Dr Ganiel says that while his role in the peace process was secondary to that of his friend, Fr Alec Reid CSsR, there is no doubt that they worked as a team in a project of historical significance resulting in the IRA ceasefire”
Crucially, she recorded seven interviews with the priest before his death – and was granted full access to his journals and papers.
In her author’s introduction she writes: “…I thought Gerry’s story deserved to be told: 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 secularising, post-Catholic society.”
Although she wrote the book with the detachment of a professional academic her regard for Fr Reynolds is obvious.
“The first thing that struck you was the warmth of his personality. He was always interested in you, he was interested in people, something that can’t always be taken for granted. That interest in the people he met on his travels and in pastoral situations also came through vividly in his private journals.”
Asked to assess Fr Gerry’s legacy she points to three main areas, his contribution to the peace process, his role as “a pioneer of Irish ecumenism” and his indefatigable work in the cause of “a shared Eucharist”.
Dr Ganiel says that while his role in the peace process was secondary to that of his confrere and friend Fr Alec Reid CSsR there is no doubt that they worked as a team in a project of historical significance resulting in the IRA ceasefire and ultimately the Good Friday Agreement.
“It must have been very lonely for Fr Alec and Gerry gave him valuable support which should not be underestimated. Gerry re-drafted documents for Alec and they prayed together.”
Dr Ganiel says that Fr Gerry’s achievement in founding the ongoing Unity Pilgrims initiative – which sees a group of Catholics cross the peace line to worship in Protestant churches each Sunday – was “truly pioneering”.
She is not aware of any similar initiative elsewhere in the world.
Gladys Ganiel is married to a Catholic and worships in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church where Steve Stockman is minister.
She says she has been shaped by the independent, evangelical Baptist tradition that she was born into and brought up in, one she is grateful to identify with.
Asked to describe her concept of God she gives a little chuckle, thinks carefully, and speaks of “a patient long suffering God who puts up with all human frailty and who will guide us towards justice”.
She adds: “I believe fundamentally that God gives us a load of responsibility, but help is available if we tap into it.
“What weighs on me is the personal responsibility, I suppose that is a very Protestant thing. God has given us gifts and it is our responsibility to do our best with them”.