I have always found the challenge of following Jesus to be one that needs courage; if we live it out it is bound to lead us into danger. Attempting to follow Jesus in the midst of Northern Ireland’s divided and often violently bloody context makes it even more precarious as a life option. “Love your enemies” has always been a phrase of Christ’s that haunts me, jolts my prejudice and pricks the conscience when I opt for comfortable Churchianity! Since the moment I took a decision to follow Jesus in 1979 I have lived under the authority of that phrase though the majority of my fellow followers have never encouraged me and, indeed, anytime I have attempted peacemaking I have been made me feel like a heretic.
Watching 14 Days on BBC Northern Ireland a few years back was the most powerful sermon on following Jesus I have experienced in a long, long time. In March 1988 Belfast was on the very brink of becoming a bloody war zone. Murder followed murder, many of them televised. Tensions were higher than maybe ever in an already murderous twenty years of Troubles. In the midst of the darkness, a candle flickered. One man was not prepared to let go of the hope he believed Jesus came to bring. One man was prepared to literally lay his life on the line to change the circumstances he was living in. That man was Fr Alec Reid, a Redemptorist Brother from Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road. 14 Days followed the news bulletins of those days and in between followed this courageous follower of Jesus as he... followed Jesus!
When Michael Stone opened fire and threw grenades into a crowd of mourners at an IRA Funeral, Fr Reid was standing beside Gerry Adams, who was perhaps the target of Stone’s bullets. As angry mourners chased Stone Fr Reid felt they would kill him and told Adams he wanted to get down and stand between them. Adams told him he was mad. Whether he was mad or not wasn’t what concerned Fr Alec Reid. If following Jesus was mad then mad was what he had to be.
A few days later he was back in the funeral cortege of those whom Stone had murdered. During this funeral, two members of the British army found themselves in the midst of a tense crowd and when a gun appeared the crowd thought that another Stone incident was about to go down and dragged the soldiers from the car and murdered them. Fr Reid tried to get between the angry crowd and the soldiers, was threatened with his life but ended up in a back alley giving one of the dying men the kiss of life and last rites. It was mad in its bravery. It was what Jesus would have done but only one follower that I know did.
In that moment when death reigned, Fr Alec Reid had in his hand a now blood covered statement from Sinn Fein of what would be needed to bring peace. He had been given it at the funeral. He delivered it to SDLP leader John Hume and the peace process was given life. The flicker of the candle that was Fr Alec Reid lit up Northern Ireland towards the bright new dawn of the cease fires some years later.
The BBC’s programme was brilliant; poignant and moving. For those of us prepared to relive the horror of those 14 days we got to find hope. I found myself realising that I was now in the story. Two of the contributors were my predecessor in Fitzroy, Ken Newell, and a colleague in the Clonard/Fitzroy fellowship, Fr Gerry Reynolds. That Clonard/Fitzroy fellowship became such a part of the peace story that they received the Pax Christi, Vatican Peace Prize. I found myself speaking at the Clonard Monastery Novena a couple of years ago. There were no bloodied dead bodies around me and no gunmen in sight but it only happened after twenty years of building up the courage.
In 14 Days Fr Reid suggests that it is too easy to just be a Church leader who does liturgy. He felt that if there is violence on the street and people were being killed that it was the job of a Priest to be involved in stopping it. Fr Gerry Reynolds quoted the Beatitudes as the reason to be peacemakers. I grew up in a place where Catholics like Fr Reid and Fr Reynolds would not even have been recognised as Christian! When I told a friend that I thought Fitzroy might ask me to think about being their minister he replied, “You wouldn’t want to go there; they talk to Catholics!”
In the book of Acts people are called Christians by those who watch them and see Christ in their actions. How dare anyone suggest that Fr Alec Reid shouldn’t be called a Christian? It is the rest of us who need to reassess! When I visit Clonard I feel privileged to walk where Fr Alec Reid walked, I feel embarrassed at my efforts at peacemaking but I feel inspired by the example of one man who was prepared to deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow Jesus.