Discovering moments of grace
Alan Abernethy, recently retired as Bishop of Connor, tells William Scholes why he could not refuse the chance to return to St Anthony's Catholic Church in Belfast's Willowfield area as part of the 4 Corners Festival
PROSTATE cancer meant that retirement as the Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor came rather earlier for Alan Abernethy than it might, had that unwelcome stranger not first visited him.
The toll of gruelling treatment and concern for his own long-term health - as well as that of the diocese he had served as bishop for more than 12 years - led to him announcing, at the age of 62, that he would be stepping down.
That happened at the end of last year, and when we met earlier this week Bishop Alan confesses that he promised himself he would do no work "in the first few months" of retirement.
So why is he now preparing to take part in the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast this Sunday?
"I just had to do this," he explains. As he talks, it becomes easy to understand why.
The event, called 'Grace Moments', is being held in St Anthony's Catholic Church in the Willowfield area of east Belfast.
It will bring Bishop Alan back to 1973 and an episode from his youth that was at once horrifying but also transforming.
At the time, he lived on the Woodstock Road directly opposite the police station with, as he looked at it, Willowfield Parish Church to the right and St Anthony's Catholic Church to the left.
Tensions were high in the community. Catholic neighbours were in Willowfield were being burned out of their homes; the violence and sectarianism that we now refer to as the Troubles was accelerating out of control.
They battered the door down, threw out the confession box, the altar, statues... anything they could get their hands on. Then they realised that the priest was in the house next door
On this particular day, a loyalist mob had gathered. They first had the RUC in their sights.
"My brother and I sat in our front room and we watched the gang gather around Cherryville Street at the Beersbridge Road corner," recalls Bishop Alan.
"They first attacked the police station, using pickaxes on the door to try and get in.
"There were only two policemen on duty, and they fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd."
The trouble didn't end there, though. "The next place they went to was the chapel," he says.
"They battered the door down, threw out the confession box, the altar, statues... anything they could get their hands on.
"Then they must have realised that the priest was in the house next door and they went to attack it."
At this moment, the army came on the scene.
"I discovered afterwards that the priest had locked himself in the bathroom," remembers Bishop Alan.
"I'm not sure what the final story might have been had the army not arrived."
The following morning, "sacred things from the church were scattered and thrown everywhere".
The violence, perpetrated against Catholics by those who would have described themselves as Protestant, unfolded before the young Alan Abernethy as he was wrestling with his faith "at a very profound level".
"I thought to myself, 'If this is what Christian faith is about, I want nothing to do with it'," he says.
"But if - and this is the point at which my life changed - that's not what Jesus would want, I have to do something different, reach out and see Christ in my neighbour."
A few years later, he entered the world of Queen's University: "Suddenly I was engaging with Roman Catholics at a very deep level."
Among them was Brendan McAllister. Today, Mr McAllister is the interim advocate for victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse; he is also training to become a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Down and Connor.
"Brendan and I become lifelong friends then. I would bring him to Christian Union meetings and he would bring me to Mass," says Bishop Alan.
"We still have a very deep friendship, and are able to speak about Jesus at a very deep level and about what our faith means to us."
Meeting Mr McAllister was, he says, one of his life's "grace moments".
It is fitting then, that as Bishop Alan returns to St Anthony's to talk "about the power of grace in changing attitudes and creating new conversations", Mr McAllister will respond to what his friend has to say.
"I am thrilled to be able to go back to where that endeavour to find Christ in my neighbour began," says Bishop Alan.
"I've met so much of Jesus in Christians from other denominations. One of the things Northern Ireland needs to learn is the grace moment to see that labels aren't important - Jesus is important."