On Wednesday evening the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship showed the BBC documentary 14 Days on a big screen in Fitzroy. Seeing it in a Church took the film into another dimension and, after we watched, Ken Newell took us out of it in prayer and challenge. For 36 hours I was surmising what the greatest sermon I have ever watched was teaching me. Then on Friday morning, while sitting in the BBC, I heard out of the corner of my ear the radio talking about the iconic photo of Fr Alec Reid kneeling over a dead soldier. Why were they talking about that I thought and then realised the saddest scenario. Fr Alec Reid had passed away. Even more reflection on a life.
14 Days is an amazing piece of documentary. When the directors, Dermot Lavery and Jonathan Golden from Doubleband Films, started thinking about remembering 25 years of the worst 14 days in the Northern Irish Troubles they felt that it was too inflammatory. In that short time span three unarmed members of the IRA were murdered in Gibraltar as they planned a bombing. That they were shot and not arrested raised tensions in Republican communities. At their funerals a mad loyalist terrorist Michael Stone started shooting and throwing hand grenades, killing three and injuring sixty mourners. Then at the funeral of two of those victims two British soldiers got somehow caught up in the huge cortege and were dragged from their car and murdered.
It was a time of bloody carnage and poisonous tension. Both sides could have beeb enraged at the remembering. In the midst of all this Dermot and Jonathan started to investigate Fr Alec Reid’s story. They discovered a Catholic priest pastoring his own community in mourning and doing what he could to stop the violence getting worse. Reid tried to save the British soldiers by covering them with his own body from the terrorists seeking vengeance. He was told to leave or he would be shot and then returned to find the soldiers, now dead, attempting the kiss of life. He was photographed kneeling over them with their blood on his face.
That was almost a story... and then... the eureka moment. As Jonathan researched Fr Alec’s story the modest priest suddenly mentioned “the letter”. What letter? Well it seems that Fr Alec was at the second funerals in order to pick up a letter from Gerry Adams to hand to John Hume. The letter was the terms for negotiations and a way into a peace process. Fr Alec had that letter in his pocket when he gave the British soldiers the last rites. Indeed he explained that he had to change the envelope because there was blood on it. After that day when most of us would have gone home traumatised to seek some sanity Fr Alec Reid drove to Derry with a letter from Sinn Fein to the SDLP that set out the building blocks for what in six years time would yield a cease fire and the peace process we enjoy the fruits of today. Dermot and Jonathan had their way to tell the story of that dark fortnight. They had the light that was flickering into life at that darkest of times. Fr Alec Reid had redemption in his blood stained hands. It is responsible and prophetic journalism that is so often so sadly lacking.
As I have listened today to the newscast tributes of Fr Alec Reid’s life I suddenly came to terms with the fact that Fr Alec wasn’t the messenger boy that Adams and Hume used to take letters back and forth. Fr Alec had talked them into starting to talk. He was not a resource of Northern Irish peace, he was an architect of it.
The two most striking things I am learning from this man’s life were well described today by Gerry Adams who said, "What Alec Reid did was, he lived the gospel message. He developed a view which was contrary to the official view, that there had to be dialogue, and he was tenacious." First, Fr Alec believed that the Gospel was incarnational. It had to be lived in the neighbourhood you lived in. He spoke in 14 Days about the danger of Church people hiding behind liturgy and preaching. It needed lived and as he said about that moment of horror when he wrapped himself around those British soldiers hoping to protect them, this shouldn’t happen in a civil society and he needed to work to get rid of it. For him that was what following Jesus meant.
That leads into that second thing that Gerry Adams’ quote reveals. Fr Alec had an alternative imagining. He didn’t settle for how it is. He believed that the God he served could make it into how it could be. “He developed a view which was contrary to the official view.” There is a secret. Thinking outside the box. Smashing the default. The official line was not to talk to terrorists; don’t negotiate. Like Jesus, his example, Lord and Saviour, Fr Alec didn’t play the expectations. He was thinking and colouring outside the lines. If the lines hadn’t been smashed we would still be captives in the violence. Sadly, the Church most times creates the very lines that Jesus lived outside. There were times when Fr Alec was misunderstood, even thought to be a little dangerous. Had he not been...
In many of the Facebook messages about Fr Alec's passing Professor John Brewer has been adding “His legacy is evident around us but his greatest achievement would surely be if the next generation of Alec Reids would come forward and complete the task of peace building.” It is a challenging thought to end a few days of deep reflection. Or will I hide behind my liturgy and preaching and remain inside the lines?