Sunday, 16 March, 1997, 10.30 am

I want to begin by thanking your Bishop, Bishop Crispian, for his invitation to preach at this Mass in your Cathedral this morning.

His interest and support for us in Ireland in these troubled times is greatly valued. Indeed the support and understanding and patience of you all in our present difficulties is immensely important. I bring you greetings and good wishes from the Primatial City of Armagh and from the people of the Archdiocese of Armagh.

I am here in Portsmouth today, Corrymeela Sunday, to preach on the work of reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Corrymeela is a centre of reconciliation in Co. Antrim on the Northern coastline. The Corrymeela Community has been in existence for over thirty years since its foundation in 1964 by Reverend Ray Davey, a Presbyterian Minister. Over these thirty years it has succeeded in bringing together people from both sides of the divide, people who might not be prepared to be seen to meet in public. They come to discuss, to talk, to listen, to analyse.

The Vision of the Corrymeela Community is to heal the social, religious and political divisions that exist in Northern Ireland and throughout the world. In our dangerously divided world the Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks of the need to be reconciled firstly with God and then to be reconciled with one another. The Gospel challenges all that keeps us apart and threatens our life as persons and as communities.

The Corrymeela Community is committed to Reconciliation. Its experience in Northern Ireland over the past thirty years is that, despite all the difficulties, reconciliation is possible.

It is entirely appropriate that Corrymeela Sunday should be held on this Sunday, the Sunday nearest to St. Patrick’s Day. Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, the feast of the Apostle of the Irish. Patrick was, at once, a Model of Reconciliation and an Apostle of Reconciliation. Patrick was a Briton, born probably somewhere near Carlisle, although there is no certainty about this. The high probability is that Patrick’s home was somewhere in the western parts of Britain, open to Irish raids. He was born probably around 415. When he was sixteen, raiders from Ireland descended on the district around his father’s farm. Patrick along with many others was carried off into slavery in Ireland. This was a great disaster. He was separated from his family, his education was interrupted with life-long effects. Patrick had to suffer great hardship.

Yes to the eyes of the world it appeared a great scandal, a great injustice. In later years Patrick came to see it as a blessing, a punishment, yes, but a well-deserved one. Let us listen to his own words:

“I was then barely sixteen. I had neglected the true God, and when I was carried off to captivity in Ireland, along with a great number of people, it was well-deserved. For we cut ourselves off from God and did not keep His commandments…….. Then the Lord made me aware of my unbelief, so that ……. however late, I might recollect my offences and turn with all my heart to the Lord, my God.”

Cut off from his family and his homeland Patrick now saw that he had earlier been cut off from his God. His Exile from his Creator was much more serious than his Exile from his homeland.

Like the Prodigal Son, Patrick found himself feeding pigs. Like the Prodigal Son Patrick came to his senses:

“More and more the love and fear of God came to me and faith grew and my spirit was exercised until I was praying up to a hundred times a day”.

“I, Patrick, a sinner”. That is how Patrick begins the two letters written by him which have survived. Patrick realises that he has sinned, that he had cut himself off from God by not keeping his commandments. Once he became aware of his offences, Patrick turned with all his heart to the Lord and was restored to God’s friendship.

Then, secure in the knowledge that he was loved by God, Patrick was set free of the bitterness and the hatred in his heart, which, I am sure, that he felt towards the Irish, his captors and his oppressors. Patrick was not only set free from anger and fear. He was set free for greater things. When God called Patrick to return to Ireland and bring the faith there, Patrick was free for this call, free for this service of love and labour towards the Irish, some of whom had been his oppressors and his captors.

Patrick quite rightly decided that only a few of the Irish had oppressed him. He had seen the goodness of the vast majority of the people. He saw that the vast majority were open to hearing the Good News and would be receptive to it. So Patrick takes up the challenge. Today we give thanks to God for sending us Patrick and to Britain for providing such a noble and inspiring apostle of the Good News.

So what has gone wrong? Foreign journalists and visitors from abroad often ask: “Why this scandal of such bitter conflict among people who profess to follow Christ? Why do Irish Church leaders not come together and settle it all up? Why a religious war at the end of the 20th Century?” To this we reply, yes, we do meet. There are probably few countries, if any, in Europe where the official Church leaders meet as frequently as they do in Ireland. We agree and state the right things. “Well then?”, is the next question, “if that is so, why do the troubles not end?”

It is difficult for someone outside our problem to fully understand the situation. The question is often asked, “Is it a religious conflict or a political conflict?” Most of our problems are political but they are also social and economic. There is also a religious dimension to them. Any war is a religious war if it is marked by a failure to live up to the standards set by Christ. However, a too simplistic division of people into two divisions, Catholic and Protestant, may be unhelpful. Each community can be sub-divided into at least three sub-groups.

On the Catholic side there is an apolitical group, not particularly identified with the traditional political view of the Catholic Community. There would also be the Republican or Nationalist group and there would be a Militant Republican group. On the Protestant side there would be the same sort of division, an apolitical grouping; there would also be Unionists and there would be the Militant Unionists, otherwise known as the Militant Loyalists.

Tensions are, for the most part, caused by Militant Republicans and Militant Loyalists. Those are the groups that need to be in some way made more aware of each other’s vision and problems. It is possible that ecumenism could make for an improvement here but only if the Militants are to be affected by it. There are little signs of that happening. Most of the Militants are not even influenced by their own Churches. So they are not particularly interested in what another Church will say.

However, all is not doom or gloom. There is still hope. Despite all the obstacles and immense difficulties a great number of valiant people struggle on courageously and ceaselessly in the cause of peace, people like the Corrymeela Community for instance. As a result of such efforts some people are now talking to each other who never spoke to each other before. Last year the refusal of the peacemakers to give up or to lose heart bore fruit in the City of Derry. There is hope that similar processes of negotiation and dialogue at local level will produce similar successful outcomes in other political flash-points this year. Nobody should fear entering negotiations. Nobody should have to negotiate out of fear. True parity of esteem ensures civil and religious liberty for all. It guarantees that the right to express one’s identity and culture is respected as well as the rights of other sections of the Community.

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.

All of this calls for a renewal of hearts as well as a renewal of society. The Churches have indeed a particular role here. Only the message of Christ can reconcile our two communities. The Churches must tirelessly and fearlessly proclaim that Message.

“See the days are coming, it is the Lord who speaks, and I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah, but not a covenant like the one I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” These words of today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah foretell the new alliance, the new covenant which Jesus is going to establish once and for all with his people by the shedding of his blood.

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. 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.

Such a new agreement will be possible because God will give His people a new heart and a new spirit. It is the divine wisdom which effects the renewal of all things.

Six years ago precisely, when the Talks Process began in March 1991, all the participants, the British Government together with the four Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government agreed that their aim was a new beginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the people of these isles. That Talks Process led to the announcements of cease-fires made by the Irish Republican Army on the 31st August 1994 and by the Combined Loyalist Military Command on 13th October the same year.

We are too painfully aware that the journey is still unfinished. However, a good portion of the road has already been travelled. God has placed our two communities, Protestant and Catholic, Nationalist and Unionist, Republican and .Loyalist, together as neighbours on the island. God has placed our two communities side by side in this part of Europe, not that we should be warring but peaceful and respectful of each other.

Person to person reconciliation is not enough. There must also be community to community reconciliation. It is not only hearts that need to be renewed but also structures. But as Pope John Paul II has said, it is the human heart that must be renewed in order to renew systems, institutions and methods.
“Grant to us, O Lord, a heart renewed. Recreate in us Your own Spirit Lord”.