Faith Matters

Clonard Novena a reminder of 'unity pilgrim' Fr Gerry Reynolds - and his honesty about love and celibacy

Fr Gerry Reynolds, photographed in Clonard Monastery before his death in 2015. Picture by Mal McCann

THE annual Clonard Novena, which concludes today, always creates new memories for the thousands who attend each year.

But it also acts as a reminder of the past, perhaps especially of friends and loved ones no longer with us.

The Novena will have caused many to reminisce about Fr Gerry Reynolds, the great Redemptorist who made such an impact in Clonard, Belfast and beyond.

Fr Reynolds died in November 2015 and last month a comprehensive and thoroughly researched biography of this remarkable priest was published.

Widely reported aspects of Unity Pilgrim, written by the multi-talented Dr Gladys Ganiel, have included how Fr Reynolds would encourage people to pray for the Rev Ian Paisley, sometimes as part of their penance after Confession.

There is also a moving passage which sheds light on Fr Reynolds's experience of celibate love with a religious sister.

The friendship began while Fr Reynolds was based at the Redemptorist community at Esker, Athenry in Co Galway, where he served between 1978 and 1981.

Dr Ganiel writes: "Around this time, Gerry wrote in his journals of one group of religious sisters with whom he experienced a growing friendship: 'They were very, very good to me. They loved me. It was quite an extraordinary experience.'

"Gerry developed a close relationship over time with one of these sisters, whose work called for their collaboration in ministry.

"Over time, they corresponded in relation to much wider areas of common interest.

"Gerry describes their sharing of scripture and prayer, and how they developed a deep personal bond."

The Queen's University academic says Fr Reynolds called it "love". When she asked him about it, almost 40 years later, he said: "I fell in love with her... and she with me.

"She had an enormous influence on my life. We soldiered with [our love] and were faithful in it down the years..."

The unnamed sister died before Dr Ganiel's conversation with Fr Reynolds took place.

"She died suddenly about two years ago and there's an emptiness from her memory," he said.

Dr Ganiel believes that the Irish term anam cara, or 'soul friend', is the best way to describe the relationship between Fr Reynolds and the religious sister: "In the Irish monastic tradition where this term emerged, it also acquired the sense of 'spiritual guide'."

Closeness of this sort between people committed and faithful to a celibate way of life has to be negotiated, observes Dr Ganiel.

"Gerry was fully aware and accepting of this struggle," she says.

"He recognised the human dimension of a loving relationship as 'the work of God in us and a powerful symbol of the personal communion Abba wills for us'."

The story is just one of the many fascinating insights into not only the life of Fr Gerry Reynolds, but also the struggles and challenges encountered by those who follow Christian vocations and who commit to faithful celibacy.

Presbyterian minister the Rev Dr Ken Newell, a close friend and collaborator of Fr Gerry Reynolds, and Dr Gladys Ganiel at the launch last month of Unity Pilgrim. Dr Newell persuaded Fr Reynolds that his story should be told. Picture by Declan Roughan

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