For some years now we have been told, time and time again, about the Novenas that take place in our communities in Ireland. We knew that it was a festival of faith, a great event of celebration, evangelization and encounter of Christians – 10,000 a day! – and we had tried to imagine what it would be like … But on the Sunday when we arrived at the Clonard Monastery in Belfast, coming from the silence of Perth, we were not prepared in any way to find a church of wide open doors (and gardens and corridors and library and refectory). We lived five days immersed in that permanent movement that stretches from early morning to evening in every corner of the monastery (and we survived!).
After a long Sunday, with a special session for the children and another one prepared by the young people – a beautiful way to end our first day in Belfast – we entered the church on Monday morning for a new day. And it was a new day indeed. Instead of finding the Redemptorist preachers, we found several leaders from different churches existing in Ireland. In the first session we listened to a woman. In the second session we listened to a married man with children. In the third session we listened to a younger man. They were members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist… they were Christians. All of them talked about how the Gospel calls us to be Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). All to be applauded by the thousands who listened to them.
What we saw on that Monday, united Christians, is reason for joy anywhere in the world. But in Clonard this joy rises to the level of an extraordinary testimony. A few meters from our community there is a huge wall built 50 years ago dividing the city of Belfast in two halves. A division that has political and religious roots, and sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between them. It means that on one side is where the Catholics live, and on the other side the Protestants. That is to say, Christians live on one side of the wall and Christians live on the other side of the wall. Humans on both sides. Separated by the Peace Wall. A wall built as something temporary to help the peace process after the Troubles, but over the years it has been growing in size and today it is still standing.
The story is not a pretty one, especially because it is not part of the past yet. In fact, it is a very much alive and present story. A real conflict. A terrible division.
So it is still urgent to build bridges (perhaps one of the best ways to tear down walls). That Monday was one of those bridges, which was built in the midst of preaching, smiles, hugs and cheering. But when we wanted to know a little more about the origin of this bridge, we were invited to sit at the table with a cup of coffee in our hands and people began to tell us stories of many other bridges and they named a certain Gerry Reynolds. He was Redemptorist who has lived for more than 30 years at the Clonard Monastery and has spent the last decades of his life reaching out to Christians on the other side of the wall. It is the story of a pilgrim – The Unity Pilgrim – who left his community every Sunday morning to go to one of the churches where “the others” met. Initially alone, later with some more companions and today, without him, this pilgrimage continues: Catholics who walk to the other side to live on the same side for at least a few hours.
It seems that Gerry Reynolds believed that the starting point for building bridges was not theological or political debates, but the creation of relations of evangelical friendship. His approach was: go, visit, meet, touch. To be. Just be there. As we listened to Gerry’s story, it was impossible not to remember the work of Winfried and Sister Ulrike in that neighborhood of migrants and refugees on the outskirts of Bochum. It seems that there is a common intuition in the construction of Peace: just be there.
Thank you, Gerry.
And Dan and Ed and Noel and Claire and Paul and Brendan and Gerald and…
We’ll see you around,
Teresa Ascensão & José Silva Oliveira
Lay Missionaries of the Most Holy Redeemer
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