For four years I was a member of the National Conference of Priests, chosen by the priests in the East Anglia diocese, and then voted on to the committee where I served for four happy years. Each year the committee asked me to go to the Irish conference to represent us, and they were wonderful visits. At our own following conference, I gave as full and true a picture of the Irish Church as I had been able to gather from their conference.
I have kept all my notes from those years and, recently re-reading them, I was startled to read I had caught (without knowing it) changes in the Church as reflected by the speakers I heard and the conversations I had had. I can read now that the conference felt an explosion was coming – but nothing of its detail. The explosion came, and you know how different the position of the Church in Ireland is now from what it was even as recently as the late 1980’s.
I formed a friendship with Fr Tom Toner, parish priest of St Agnes, Andersonstown, Belfast, and he invited me to preach a parish mission. It was wonderful. I was invited the following year. Again wonderful. I was asked if I would come again after a year’s break. I was one with them.
I told them of my longing for peace and justice in Northern Ireland, and everywhere; how proud I was of being a Christian and a Catholic; how proud of being Welsh, Irish, British; shared histories of shame, injustice and arrogance and power in State and Church, and the goodness of people in everyday life. God had blessed me to know many good and inspiring people in various walks of life, and helped me not to despise those who sought only self-advancement and ambition in Church and State.
I admired backbenchers in Parliament who worked for the people who had adopted them and whom they served faithfully, rather than the ambitious frontbenchers who adopted safe seats at the behest of a controlling leadership; and I loved my fellow priests who wanted only to love and serve their people rather than the creeps who crept and knew what to do next. I spoke with full admiration of bishops and politicians who had never lost their ideals, who loved and served and used their powerful positions to speak and act for justice.
It all came back to me in the Belfast riots of this last week. A beautiful city, lovely peoples, and threat of terrible divisions again. Who or what are urging the young men to riot against the police and each other? What good can come?
Father Tom Toner had anointed Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, and then said a requiem mass for him when he died. That was Tom: God’s man, above State or Church politics but involved in both to bring peace and justice. His people knew.
The sacristan was in his early fifties and had lived in the North all his life. Balanced and committed, he told me his best friend at work was a Protestant “and there is the answer,” he said. “He is a Protestant, I am a Catholic, and we are friends.” What a beautiful summary.
I asked him about Bobby Sands and the anointing and the requiem mass. How should I explain that back home? “Tell them that no one is ever outside the mercy of God.” Those are his words and they are my answer: friendship and God’s blessing. If only our Church authorities and our politicians had the wisdom to know how to say that to our people in Northern Ireland.
God bless us to make peace,
(11th April 2021)