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Gerry Reynolds: unity pilgrim and builder of peace

Peacemaking and striving for unity was a passion for Fr Gerry Reynolds, writes William Scholes

Fr Gerry Reynolds pictured in Clonard Monastery. Picture by Mal McCann

PEACEMAKER is an oft-used word today. But when Fr Gerry Reynolds arrived in Clonard Monastery in 1983 there was precious little peace around, let alone peacemaking.

The marriage between Fr Gerry and one of west Belfast's Troubles hot-spots was an inspired one that would ultimately lead to him being regarded as one of the 'quiet peacemakers'.

He would later refer to himself as "part of the furniture" at Clonard, and was centrally involved in the monastery's hugely popular Novena.

In Fr Gerry, fellow Clonard Redemptorist Fr Alec Reid found an ally in the sort of peacemaking that took both men into the political and paramilitary arena, including ceasefires.

Those were big achievements, but it his ecumenical spirit and courage that will almost certainly be Fr Gerry's enduring legacy.

"The unity of the body of Christ has been for me a passionate concern," he told me - and countless others - more than once.

The itinerant life of a Redemptorist priest meant that by the time he was sent to Belfast, he had already spent three years serving in his native Limerick, 13 years in Dublin and five years in Galway working on parish missions and retreats.

He came to Clonard with his enthusiasm for unity already fully-formed.

Ordained in 1960, he would speak of how as a young priest he was inspired by the "bigness of heart" he saw in Pope John XXIII.

"His prophetic actions awakened me to the great challenge which the deep divisions among the disciples of Jesus still present to our Christian conscience," he observed.

Another big influence was the work and example of Fr Paul Couturier, a French priest and pioneering ecumenist who died in 1953.

Couturier has been described as "a man who came out of the future"; the same could be said of Fr Gerry.

A friendship with the Rev Ken Newell, minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast's university area, soon flourished into an ecumenical partnership, at a time when such initiatives were few and far between.

He described himself as a 'unity pilgrim', something he lived out by sharing, with fellow pilgrims, in a morning service in a different Protestant church almost every Sunday.

Fr Gerry had the ability to see beyond the divide between Protestant and Catholic and focus instead, clearly and simply, on how the Christian traditions are "united in a common baptism".

He liked to quote the words of the prophet Micah, speaking of how "with these brothers and sisters in Christ, we seek together 'to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God'".

Another ecumenical initiative was In Joyful Hope, which was a step towards what he called 'Eucharistic communion'.

Better relations between Christians and Jewish and Muslim people - the Holy Land was the "fifth gospel," he would say - was another passion.

"That's the hope - that we will come to recognise the common bond of faith between ourselves and the Jews," he said.

"It is also a common bond with the Muslim people for they too see themselves as children's of Abraham's faith.

"There is a great task there, for dialogue and mutual understanding for the monotheistic faiths so that we can hammer our swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks."

All these earthly endeavours were balanced by his faith that all things happen in God's time: "In God's good time all his people will be united in Zion, the city of peace and reconciliation."

Illness in recent years had dimmed his energy but not his fervour; his manner remained gentle and informal - "just call me Gerry" - and his interest in other people as deep as ever.

If anything, in recent years his heart became even more open to being challenged and shaped by encounter with Christians from other traditions.

He wrote regularly for the Faith matters section of the Irish News and when I spoke to him last Sunday, as he undertook another of his Clonard unity pilgrim visits, I asked if he would contribute to a planned series of articles on reconciliation and what role the Churches and people of faith might be able to play.

He agreed, and said that for him reconciliation was simple: "We just have to follow in Jesus' footsteps."

That's what Gerry Reynolds spent his life doing and it is how, above all, he will be remembered.

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