I am deeply saddened by the news this morning that St. Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street had had an arson attack.
As a society seeking a way out of our sectarian past it is vital that we condemn in the strongest terms such attacks whether on Catholic Churches, Protestant Churches, Jewish synagogues or indeed Orange Halls.
I am concerned that for many reasons there is now a lack of respect for religion and therefore religious buildings. However, when a religious building is attacked by those believing that they are somehow standing up for another religion, we need to speak out in the strongest terms. We must declare that this is not being done in our name.
St. Patrick’s Church being attacked is particularly poignant to me. It is the first Catholic Church that I ever took part in a service ein. In 1998 the Jesus In the City Conference was held in Belfast. My friend Doug Gay was involved in the closing act of worship and asked if I would pray.
I decided that I would write a prayer for the entire city. I therefore imagined standing at City Hall and looking out… north, south, east and west. I was uneasy praying in a Catholic Church that evening, but actually it was a helpful event in shifting my heart, that was hardened by peer pressure to never pray or read or preach in Catholic Churches. That evening in St. Patrick’s was a significant moment in my journey of faith.
I used that prayer occasionally over the years but when Fr Martin Magill asked me to pray at a In Joyful Hope service in his then Church St Oliver Plunkett’s in Lenadoon I pulled it out. The prayer was very well received and just a short time later when Fr Martin and I came up with the idea of a festival to get people across their corners of Belfast, Martin suggested that we called it after the prayer. So the 4 Corners Festival was born.
In the first four years of the Festival we have held events in St. Patrick’s twice. Last year we used it for Captured By A Vision, when Rev Dr Ken Newell came to read from his memoir of that name. On this occasion we chose the venue carefully. In his book Ken speaks of being sectarian in his early life and that it was during an Orange Lodge march that stopped outside St Patrick’s that was one of the moments that started to change his mind. He glanced into the Church as he walked past and saw Catholics in prayer. It sparked thoughts within his soul.
So, this morning I am surmising on a sectarian attack in a place that has helped deal with the sectarianism in Ken Newell and my life. It is not lost on me that the attack happened just days before the 2017 4 Corners Festival. During this years Festival we will be doing events across denominations, seeking that many will cross new Church thresholds for the first time and have their own prejudices provoked!
Surely, the future and well being of the city, that Jeremiah calls us to pray for, will be improved by events like the 4 Corners Festival rather than futile attack that happened last night.