Sunday, 16 March, 1997, 6.30 pm

It is a source of great joy to me to be with you this evening here in the Cathedral Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Portsmouth, on this, the eve of the Feast of St. Patrick, for this Ecumenical Service to celebrate the Corrymeela Community. Today marks the beginning of Corrymeela Week and so it is a special pleasure for me to join with you as we celebrate Corrymeela Sunday, organised by the Corrymeela Link, based in Reading, in partnership with the Provost of St. Thomas’ Cathedral and with the Elmsworth and Paulsgrove Corrymeela Support Groups. I thank the organisers for this invitation to preach.

The Corrymeela Community was founded in 1965 shortly before the outbreak of the present troubles in Northern Ireland. Its members come from all the main Christian denominations in Ireland. They have bound themselves together as instruments of God’s peace in church and society. They strive to achieve that peace through prayer, mutual support and commitment. The Community’s Vision is expressed in the healing of social, religious and political divisions that exist in Northern Ireland and throughout the world. Corrymeela has two centres, one in Belfast which acts as a resource for local groups and looks after administration. The other is in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, which has residential space for 120 people. Through its series of programmes for various groups as well as various “open events” which the community hosts, Corrymeela has enabled relationships of trust to grow, bridging the widest divides. Corrymeela believes that this change is possible when people feel accepted for who and what they are, and when they are given an opportunity to tell their story and listen to those of others from a different background. Corrymeela provides such an opportunity through its provision of “safe and shared spaces” where people can meet and share together. There trusting relationships can grow, providing hope of a new way of living together.
Corrymeela is committed to reconciliation. Its experience in Northern Ireland over the past thirty-two years has shown that reconciliation is possible. The past months in Northern Ireland have been difficult. It has been a time of increased tension, fear, mistrust and indeed bitterness. The result has been a breakdown of relations between neighbours and between communities. Now, more than ever it is important to offer encouragement and support to those who are caught up in the situation. It is necessary to support and encourage those who continue to work painstakingly for peace like the Corrymeela Community. That is why I am with you today, the Corrymeela Community deserves the support of us all. Despite all the obstacles and setbacks there is still hope. A great number of people continue to work away ceaselessly in the cause of peace.

For sixteen years Corrymeela and the Irish School of Ecumenics have co-sponsored a residential ministry conference at the Corrymeela Centre, Ballycastle. The theme of this year’s Conference is: “Through disillusionment”. It is a recognition that this is a time of deep disillusionment in Northern Ireland. People are disillusioned with the Peace Process. They are disillusioned with each other. They are disillusioned with their leaders. People are even disillusioned with themselves as they see the shadow side and the bigotry and sectarianism which have been discovered deep within themselves. There is a profound sense of failure and helplessness in not being able to achieve what is so eagerly desired.

Disillusionment means freedom from illusions. It can be a positive thing therefore. To be set free from our misapprehensions of the true state of affairs is something good. It must be said that there was an unreal optimism, an illusionary optimism during the time of the cease-fires. People were talking about the peace dividend who hadn’t invested much effort in the real work of making peace.

People were obviously ignorant of how arduous the task of making peace really is. They forgot how much the conditions of human existence can wound our will for good. It was unrealistic to think that the effects of 25 years of violence could be undone in so short a time.

So if there is disillusionment, that is, freedom from an illusionary optimism, it can be something positive. The antidote to disillusionment is patience. Patience is predominantly a religious attitude linked intimately to trust in God. If patience is the trustful expectation that God will come to set us free, so the peace of mind and serene courage which patience gives to people, when faced with difficulties, are in reality an act of hope. A hope that is filled with confidence and the saving power of God.

You may ask why is Corrymeela Sunday held on this particular day, why this week? It is no coincidence that this is the Sunday nearest to St. Patrick’s Day. It is entirely appropriate that Corrymeela Sunday should be held today. St. Patrick was a model of reconciliation, indeed, an apostle of reconciliation. A Briton captured and oppressed and wronged terribly by the Irish at the tender age of 16, he was originally probably filled with hatred for his oppressors. More than this he was also drifting away from his own faith, had become careless about matters of faith, he was self-sufficient and self-contained, we note how he describes himself in his Confession, “I Patrick – a sinner”. However, Patrick uses his time of exile and suffering to return to his God and to appreciate his faith better. He escapes and gets back home and it is in these safe, secure and familiar environs that he receives the call to return to Ireland and to the people whom he had once feared and perhaps hated so much.

Patrick was free enough to come back, free from hatred, suspicion toward his formers captors and free from fear. He felt he had something to give, that he had a contribution to make, to the Ireland of his day. This is immensely important. He had new energy and a new vision of the Irish. So he came back. Patrick is the example par excellence of being reconciled. Who can deny that a new energy and a new vision is what we need in the Ireland of today in order that people may be reconciled one to the other and overcome the barriers of hatred, fear and suspicion.

The 2nd Pan European Ecumenical Assembly to be held in Graz later this year has as its theme Reconciliation. It recognises that reconciliation is above all a gift from God, it emanates from God. God is its source. At the same time it sees reconciliation as a source of New Life. It makes new relationships possible, relationships without fear, without suspicion, relationships built on openness, mutual forgiveness and trust.

Over the past year peace in Ireland has been shattered in many different ways by acts of violence and bombings, and by summary beatings. The atmosphere has been soured by protests and pickets and boycotts. Our streets have been blighted by demonstrations of bigotry and sectarianism. Homes, churches and schools have been attacked. On 13 February we had the murder in Bessbrook of the young soldier, Stephen Restorick, a truly evil deed which served only to increase a sense of fear and terror among the entire community. And yet in the midst of the horror generated by the tragic death of Stephen, the voices of his grieving parents John and Rita ring out with a message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation. One cannot have anything but admiration for, and be inspired by, their tremendous generosity of spirit and nobility of heart. Their lack of bitterness and message of forgiveness have edified many.

The desire for peace is very deeply felt throughout the whole community of Northern Ireland. Despite all the setbacks, there remains a great yearning for peace. There is horror at the prospect of a return to full-scale violence and there is the earnest hope that the peacemakers may not lose heart but continue to do all they can to resolve the tragic situation.

The longing for peace was made all the more intense by the experience of the cease-fires that were in operation in 1995. People realised then what they had been missing for the previous 25 years. It was hoped that a return to normal living would have become enduring. Hope turned to frustration as the opportunities for negotiation were let slip.

There is great fear at the prospect of a return to violence. In fact the most impregnable border of all remains the barrier created by fear and mistrust. Fear and mistrust are learned emotions.. They are the burden of memory and history that separate people in a deeper way than any physical barrier. It is only in overcoming this legacy of fear and suspicion that the true border can be crossed into the country of freedom.

We are busy preparing for a new Millennium. The idea of newness is found frequently in the Bible. There, people and the earth grow old like a garment. We talk about things being “old hat”, but in God nothing is old, all is new. All creation belongs to God. So in the Bible things which have not been profaned by use, are sacred. The first fruits of the harvest and the new-born are reserved for God. The prophets were waiting for a new David, a new Temple, a new Holy Land, a new Jerusalem, and all these things will be characterised by the eternal unchanging love of God. Yahweh and Israel, his Chosen People, will resume their relationships of love. This covenant, this pact, this agreement, will be everlasting, but at the same time it -will be a new covenant, a new agreement, a new beginning, made possible by God who will give His people a new heart and a new spirit and it is the divine wisdom which effects the renewal of all things.
A new beginning, how we in Ireland need a new beginning, a fresh start. Both the British and Irish Governments recognise that there is much for deep regret on all sides in the long and often tragic history of Anglo-Irish relations and of relations between the various communities within Ireland itself. In the 1995 Framework -Document they expressed the belief that it is now time to lay aside, with dignity and forbearance, the mistakes of the past. They recognised that a collective effort is needed to create, through agreement and reconciliation a new beginning. That new beginning is to be founded on consent for relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland, between the peoples of these islands.

It is time that we realise that we need one another. Unionist and Nationalist, Irish and British, North and South, Protestant and Catholic. Sure there are huge difficulties to be overcome. These difficulties are rooted in our different identities, our different cultures, our different religious beliefs. Our history carries a heavy load of violence and conflict. That load cannot be easily set aside. Unfortunately the destructive effects of past suffering live on; those effects fuel fear and suspicion, hatred and distrust. But we cannot remain prisoners of our past. Of course sometimes it is easier to live in the past than to face the present and plan for the future. A sort of healing of memories is needed so that past evils will not come back again to destroy the present and the future. This does not mean that we forget the past. It is sometimes said that we Irish have a dangerous obsession with history.

Escaping from our past is not the same as forgetting the past. Forgetting the past can bring no understanding of the present. Overcoming the past can, however, and where the legacy of the past perpetuates animosities, it must, of necessity, be overcome, especially if we want peace in the present and in the future. Overcoming the past is not merely different from forgetting the past. It is the exact opposite of it. Striving to build a future without a past is like building without foundations. Overcoming the past means confronting its difficulties, not forgetting them.

As I have said, 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 that we look at it with a new attitude. It means learning from it the important lesson that only love can build up. Hatred produces nothing but destruction.

A correct reading of history will make it easier for all to accept the differences which exist between the communities. It will show that mistakes are not all one-sided. Respect for differences is a necessary condition for genuine and harmonious relationships, and it is that I long and pray for, it is that which the vast majority of people on these islands long and pray for; God will surely answer that prayer.

During the first Millennium there was a great Christian exchange of gifts between these islands with the great missionaries. Patrick came from Britain to Ireland. Columcille went to Iona and Scotland. St. Aidan went to Lindisfarne and England. They exchanged a common faith and shared a common creed, it was a generous exchange of spiritual gifts and insights and a sharing of the love of God which burned so intensely in their own lives. The first millennium could perhaps be described as the millennium of unity between us. If that is so the second can only be described as the millennium of splits and division. Perhaps in the third millennium which we are about to enter we might rediscover our common heritage and use this
All is not gloom. There are signs of hope. There were the Orangemen who turned up at Harryville in support of Catholics attending Mass and who guarded a Catholic school in a predominantly Protestant town in Co. Down. The Catholic parish of Omagh raised funds for a damaged Methodist church in that town. Protestant Churches raised money for a local Catholic school which had its laboratories damaged.

There is hope that those who persist in using violence to achieve political ends will see the folly of their ways and the futility of that approach. There is still hope of a restoration of the IRA cease-fire if a place at the negotiating table could be assured. Despite provocation, the Loyalist cease-fire remains in place and their place at the talks is assured. There is hope that a similar solution can be worked out for the Militant Republicans.

What is needed is a total cessation of violence. No-one can really claim to be for peace in Northern Ireland who rationalises or justifies the use of force to pursue political ends. There must be an end to the killing and bombings, to the punishment beatings, to every type of intimidation and boycott, to the harassment and attack on churches and church-goers.

The current impasse in the peace process does not justify a return to violence. Neither does it justify the maintenance of the Status Quo. Political leaders in Northern Ireland, as well as the British and Irish Governments, must be urged persistently to move forward to serious and substantive political talks.
There is hope that through dialogue and understanding the two communities will begin to appreciate and take account of each other’s fears, resentments and suspicions. Some feel isolated, betrayed and insecure. Others feel hurt, powerless and ignored.

Each community has to take account of the feelings of the other community. There are many Unionist people who feel betrayed, abandoned and lost. They feel let down by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, The Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document. They do not trust Northern Nationalists. They fear the Government and people of the Republic. They even suspect the British Government.

Nationalists have their fears and their resentments also. They are angry that the period of the cease-fires was not put to better use for negotiations. They are afraid that another cease-fire would get similar treatment. They resent being treated as second class citizens. They want parity of esteem and parity of esteem is taken to mean that the political and religious views of both communities be treated with respect and should be accorded equal weight.

There is another important sign of hope. There are indications that thinking people now see and accept that there is a British identity and an Irish identity in Northern Ireland. Nearly a million people owe allegiance to Britain. They identify themselves as British. A very large minority see themselves as Irish and wish to have their way of life and their culture and tradition accepted as worthy of respect and esteem.
The restoration of a proper peace process remains the stated priority of the various parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Any overall political settlement that will endure has to be achieved through agreement. It has to be founded on consent. Negotiations are needed to address all the issues relevant to such a settlement.

On 1 January, 1997, Pope John Paul II appealed to us to seek peace along the path of forgiveness. One of the most moving statements of 1997 has been that of John and Rita Restorick, parents of the young soldier murdered in Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, last month. Their spirit of forgiveness truly amazed millions. Of course forgiveness can seem contrary to human logic. But then forgiveness is not inspired by human logic. Rather forgiveness is inspired by the infinite love which God has for each one of us. Patrick knew that and so he could become an Apostle of Reconciliation.

Lasting peace is built on mutual acceptance and on the capacity to forgive from the heart. Our faith in Christ gives powerful reasons for hope, despite all the setbacks. Peace comes, dropping slow, the Poet Yeats said in another context, but come it will, that is certain.
Its coming is captured well in these lines of the poet, Patrick Kavanagh:

“Then I saw the wild geese flying. In fair formation to their bases in
Inchicore, and I knew that these wings would outwear the Wings of War.”
Yes they will outwear the wings of war because that is the plan that God has for us:
“I know the plans I have for you. Plans for good and not for evil. To give you a future and a hope.”
May Christ who is our Peace and who has made us one, give us that future and that hope soon.