1 JANUARY 1997

The celebration of the World Day of Peace takes place this year in a context of great uncertainty in Northern Ireland. Many are asking what has or has not been achieved in the search for peace.

There is at once a great yearning for peace, horror at the prospect of a return to violence, and the earnest hope that the peacemakers may not lose heart but continue to do all they can to resolve the tragic situation.

The yearning for peace becomes more intense at this time of year when we celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace. The desire for peace is one of the most powerful desires of the human heart. People everywhere long for that peace which the angels promised to the shepherds on the first Christmas night.

The longing for peace was made all the more intense by the experience of the cease-fires that were in operation one year ago. People realised then what they had been missing over the previous twenty-five years. It was hoped that the return to normal living would have become enduring. Hope turned to frustration as the opportunities for negotiation were let slip and the hope was almost totally shattered by the bombing at Canary Wharf last February.

There is also great fear at the prospect of a return to violence. Now is the time to stop and assess what that would involve. New Year is traditionally a time for heart-searching and self-examination. Let all of us ask ourselves what we can do to prevent a return to a situation which is a recipe for misery and disaster. Let those who are tempted to go back to the use of physical force realise that a just and lasting peace could never be produced by such means.

Now is the time for all to reflect and see that there is another way which can bring about a resolution of the problem. It is the way of dialogue and negotiation. Once again I appeal to the IRA to restore their cease-fire and open the door to negotiations.

There is still hope. Despite all the obstacles and difficulties, a great number of people work away courageously and ceaselessly in the cause of peace. The events of 1996 have dealt a huge blow to their morale.

There is still hope that those contemplating a return to violence to achieve their ends will see the futility of that approach and reject the temptation to inflict further suffering and disaster. There is still hope of a restoration of the IRA cease-fire. There is hope that the loyalist paramilitaries will maintain their cease-fire and ensure that they continue to make their very commendable contribution to the search for peace.

There is hope that people will abandon intimidation and economic boycotts, harassment and attacks on Churches, which are so destructive of community harmony and so favourable to the creation of suspicion and distrust. This cannot be the road to enduring peace.

There is still hope that those who have the responsibility of protecting and promoting the common good, namely those in government, will refuse to sacrifice that good in the service of their own personal interest or in the service of the short-term interest of their party and will take some positive steps to prevent the drift towards chaos.

There is hope that people, especially people with power to influence the situation, will recognise that there is much that could be said or done to bring about significant change and that they will renew their commitment to do all they can to help.

There is hope that it will be clear that there can be no peace dividend without a prior peace investment.

Peace is a victory. Any peace that is going to last will not necessarily be the victory of the strongest over the weakest. Neither will it be the victory of evil over good. Rather it will be the victory of justice over injustice, it will be a victory of truth over falsehood. It will be a victory of freedom over tyranny, and over every form of domination and oppression. It will be a victory of solidarity and development over hunger, poverty and humiliation.

It will not be an easy victory but it is possible. Hope strives for the achievement of some future good that is difficult but possible to achieve. Patience is part of hope.

The achievement of the victory of this lasting peace will require a lot of patient effort. It is important that we support the patient efforts of the peacemakers with our prayers and sacrifice.

For there are great difficulties to be overcome – difficulties that have roots in the different identities, cultures and religious beliefs. These differences do not arise solely from our present circumstances. Our history carries a heavy load of violence and conflict. That load cannot easily be set aside. The destructive effects of past suffering live on, fuelling fear and suspicion. hatred and distrust.

We cannot remain prisoners of our past as Pope John Paul II reminds us in his message today. A sort of “healing of memories” is needed so that past evils will not come back again. This does not mean that we forget the past. It means looking at the past with a new attitude. It means learning from the past the important lesson: “only love can build up”. Hatred produces nothing but destruction and ruin. We must learn to read history without bias. A correct reading of history will make it easier to accept the differences that exist between the communities here. It will show that mistakes are not all on one side. Respect for difference is a necessary condition for genuine and harmonious relationships.

How can that peace be achieved?

Firstly by dialogue and negotiation which will inspire confidence and generate trust. Only dialogue can drive out fear and hatred and create the climate for peace, a climate where trust and mutual respect can begin to grow.

Secondly, by offering and accepting forgiveness as Pope John Paul II has stated. No process of peace can ever begin unless an attitude of sincere forgiveness takes root in human hearts.

There have been some marvellous examples of forgiveness – one thinks of the late Gordon Wilson and his magnanimous forgiving of those responsible for the death of his daughter.

One of the most moving statements of 1996 was that of Mr. McGoldrick father of Michael McGoldrick killed in Lurgan in July – when he urged those in conflict to bury their differences with his son Michael.

Pope John Paul appeals to everyone to seek peace along the paths of forgiveness. Of course forgiveness can seem contrary to human logic but forgiveness is inspired by the logic of that love which God has for every man and woman, for every people and nation.

The Church continues to proclaim what from a human standpoint appears to be folly. It does so confident in the infinite love of God. God’s forgiveness becomes in our hearts an inexhaustible source of forgiveness in our relationships with one another.

Lasting peace is built on mutual acceptance and the capacity to forgive from the heart. We all need to be forgiven by others. So we must all be ready to forgive. Asking and granting forgiveness is something profoundly worthy of the human person. It is the only way out of situations like our own that are marked by age-old and violent hatred.

Forgiveness does not come spontaneously or naturally to people. Forgiving from the heart can be heroic. The encounter with forgiveness is liberating and can be experienced by wounded hearts, thanks to the healing power of love which has its first source in God who is love.

Ultimately the only peace that will last among Christians will be the peace of Christ. That peace comes to the hearts of those who go out of themselves and meet the love of God which is given in Jesus Christ, secure in the love of God the heart finds a fullness of life and becomes capable of forgiveness and goodness, of patience and meekness.

These are the sentiments which ultimately build up unity and peace in any community. Peace is a victory over the lusts of the heart for power and the greed to possess things.

Peace is a victory of good over evil. It is the gift of the Prince of Peace – Our Crucified and Risen Lord.
Our faith gives powerful reasons for hope despite all the setbacks. The love of God for each one was revealed in the coming of Christ. We celebrate that coming at Christmas. That love has brought and continues to bring, new life and mighty power to change the world. This truth drives out of the temptation to despair.

“I know the plans I have for you. Plans for good and not for evil to give you a future and a hope”
This marvellous promise was given in the darkest moment of Judah’s history. God has plans – they are plans which are good. He needs our help to carry them out.

All through His life Jesus promised God’s forgiveness. God plans to forgive us but he needs our mutual forgiveness as the condition for obtaining it. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. We hold in our own hands the measure by which we will be judged by God. Those who are not willing to forgive cut themselves off by that very fact from the forgiveness of God and frustrate God’s plans.

May Christ who is our Peace and who has made us one bring just and lasting peace to our troubled land.