Remembering the peacemaker priest in Northern Ireland: Father Gerry Reynolds


Father Gerry Reynolds (R), with Father Ken Newell, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland

By Joram Tarusarira


The only way forward is the conversation, the meeting, the dialogue…’ – Fr. Gerry Reynolds



30 November 2016 marks one year after the death of Gerry Reynolds, a Redemptorist Catholic priest based at Clonard Monastery in Belfast in Northern Ireland, who passed away at the age of 82. Fr Gerry, as he was affectionately is well known for his long and patient work promoting reconciliation among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The BBC described him as a man of prayer and a man of action. Gerry Adams the leader of Sinn Fein the pro-Catholic political party in Northern Ireland, described him as a champion of the peace process. Fr. Gerry pioneered numerous initiatives, including the Unity Pilgrims (a group of Catholics who worship at Protestant churches on Sunday mornings), the Clonard-Fitzroy Presbyterian Fellowship, which he developed along with Rev Ken Newell of the Presbyterian Church, during the most difficult days of the Troubles, and the ‘In Joyful Hope’ initiative, which promotes shared Eucharist/communion. He was also involved with the ecumenical Cornerstone Community, prison ministry, and ministry with Travelers.

I met and became friends with Fr. Gerry when I participated in the Unity Pilgrims initiatives as part of my service learning program during my MPhil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Studies at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast in 2008-9. He was a friend and confidante of the late Fr Alec Reid, who brokered behind-the-scenes peace talks between Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party during the 1980s. These talks are seen as important precursors to the peace process. He also helped organize quiet dialogues among Sinn Fein politicians and Protestant clergy, which were important in opening lines of communication and promoting understanding. In this post I seek to reflect on the life and work of Fr. Gerry Reynolds and what insights it has for present day society beyond Northern Ireland. The world currently struggles with intra and interstate conflicts, pluralism, cultural encounters, religious and non-religiously articulated extremisms, politics of belonging inter alia, which have often resulted in conflict and violence.

The passing away of Fr Reynolds is a sad event, not only because many would have wanted to have him around and will miss him, but also because he would have wanted to do more in a world that continues to tear apart instead of coming closer together. However, his sad passing provides us with an opportunity to reflect deeply on the values that he pursued during his entire life. These values live long after his death and remain imperative in today’s world that is replete with one conflict after another, mounting terrorist attacks and the inevitable humanitarian crises engendered by all this. Northern Ireland, where Fr. Gerry dedicated his life, has known division between the Catholic and Protestant communities, and has experienced violence and terrorist attacks during the ‘Troubles’ (1960s – 1998). But Father Gerry dedicated himself to building trust and restoring relationships between the two communities despite their different cultural, religious and political orientations.

Globalization has added to population pressures in Europe as evidenced by the current refugee challenge, the largest since WWII. It has also accentuated calls for greater regulation of migration and enhanced security. These forces have resulted in a growing belief that the push for multiculturalism has divided rather than united societies, has infused right wing parties and movements, resulting in simmering violence, destruction of property, and growing fear among vulnerable groups. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to have said at her party’s 2015 convention “Multiculturalism leads to parallel societies and therefore remains a ‘life lie’.” Several years before she had stated that ‘multiculturalism in Germany had utterly failed’. The terrorist attacks and the continuing threats to Western countries by extremist groups seemingly justify questioning whether it still makes sense to believe in multiculturalism[1], a concept that has been described as fuzzy. It is beyond the scope of this piece to settle the definitional debate. However the following conception of multiculturalism can be helpful: a response to the presence of cultural diversity, itself an outcome of the migration processes common to many contemporary Western societies as well as a broad set of inclusionary principles and practices that are manifested in diverse societies (Kymlicka 1995; Parekh 2000; Taylor 1994; Vasta 2007; Vertovec 1996; 2007a) with the aim of facilitating the coexistence of a variety of different cultures.[2]

While it may seem out of place to discuss terror attacks in the light of Fr. Gerry’s death, it is my contention that his work in peacebuilding by bridging communities of different cultures, the Catholics and the Protestants, has wider implications beyond Northern Ireland to other parts of the world struggling to deal with diversity and pluralism, religious or non-religious. The Northern Ireland experience tells that diversity and pluralism need not lead to mutual animosity, but is consistent with dialogue and engagement. It also suggests consideration for the ethnic or religious identities that are empirically present in a particular context, and respect for the value they hold for their bearers. This does not imply uncritical respect or unreserved admiration. It is a call for engagement, contact and consideration, rather than the knee-jerk exclusion from the public sphere that is too often the order of the day, and which, in turn, makes the minorities that protest against it seem like troublemakers. Multiculturalism also lies in moments of contact, mixing and cultural exchange. It may speak of the hybridisation of culture and the creation of spaces that allow for relatively effortless encounters. Its ethical core is the creative adaptation of culture under conditions of uncertainty and crisis.[3]

Fr. Gerry facilitated the generation of trust and reduction of distance between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. What is needed in a globalizing world is to restore belief and trust in diversity and pluralism through mutual understanding and acceptance of ‘the other’. One way to do this is increased contact between different communities, what has been called cross-community work in Northern Ireland. Fr. Gerry’s cross-community outreach programs provide some key lessons towards a multicultural society. Inter-communal dialogue and cultural understanding cultivates great respect, diminishes fears, and unites communities in a mutual acceptance of their common humanity.

Social trust, that is, the belief in the goodness or good intentions of others that they will not willingly or unwillingly do any harm to the other, is a key pillar of this work. Embedded in social trust is confidence in the good intentions of the other during interaction. Confidence in other people enables free engagement with the other without fear or favour. This implies on one hand the expectation that one’s views or actions will be objectively considered and, on the other hand, the belief that they will receive the same in return – reciprocity in short. Trust can be primary (taken-for-granted and unquestioned), or reflective or calculating trust. The former does not search for evidence of trustworthiness while the latter is conceptualized and rationalized, and progressively transformed into strategic and calculated forms.[4] I am interested in the latter type: trust as confidence in human qualities in role expectation and not faith, which is divinely, sanctioned confidence.[5] This means it can be thought about, is symbolically communicable, and is implicitly or explicitly present in interactions, relationships, and communication.[6] It grows gradually and is mediated by patience and time.[7]

The Unity Pilgrims project that was started by Fr. Gerry seeks to generate trust between Catholics and Protestants. It is associational in nature. The rationale behind it is that increasing contact between enemies or former enemies facilitates generation of trust. Contact theory has its limitations, but it cannot be denied that increased contact allows for dialogue and communication which are central elements towards multiculturalism.[8] The initiative has a very simple approach. Members of the Catholic community from Clonard Monastery, after their mass go to join a Protestant church service in a Protestant neighborhood. Arrangements would be made ahead of time with the pastor and leadership of the respective church. There is not much expectation from both communities. The Catholic members join the service, spreading themselves amongst the Protestant church members during the service. After the service, there is often a sharing of tea or coffee and cookies. A member of the Unity Pilgrims once remarked: ‘there is an opportunity for a bit of fellowship with a cup of tea or coffee …. Some would say that time together … is almost as important as the worship itself. It is a case of small things but with big repercussions. The Catholic members interact with the Protestant communities over a cup of tea or coffee in a very informal way as a strategy to bring down mental barriers that have separated the two communities. It is worth noting that to this day physical walls, euphemistically called ‘peace walls’, separating Catholic and Protestant communities still exist in Northern Ireland. The idea of the informal meeting after the church service is simply to get to know each other as human beings and as fellow Christians. In his own words Fr. Gerry said, ‘The only way forward is the conversation, the meeting, the dialogue, [and to] create space for the spirit of God to work in human history.’

 Associating with the other facilitates social connections and cooperation, and by virtue of repeated interactions engenders trust among members” [9] Increased contact or associational life through various social programs and activities has the potential to open up to the other and get to know them better. As Rowland (2008:3) notes ‘repeat exposures to others tend to lead to a greater confidence that others can be trusted, if the parties are honest in their communication and the parties follow through on the commitments they make.’ In the same vein Parlevliet observes that associational life addresses relationships which are vital to unlocking positions of fear and suspicion which block systemic changes; it enhances participation by bringing communities together, and if institutionalized, formulate proposals for action in situations where there is tension and suspicion.[10] Multicultural conflicts are replete with psycho-political dynamics which can be transformed more easily through increased contact and associational life.

Increased contact helps to deconstruct stereotypes about the other. Stereotypes often accompany the creation of groups and identities. They are an inference drawn from the assignment of a person to particular category’[11] and can serve an ideological function, which justifies the status quo. Once a stereotype is formed, engagement with the person or people to whom it is ascribed will be biased and/or prejudiced. Stereotypes may, however, change in response to the disconfirming information.[12] They can be changed if disconfirming information, in this case, who the other (foreign) person or community alleged to be an enemy, actually is. This is an inviting disposition which will encourage the new comers, be they refugees or migrants to engage with the values and culture of the host countries as well as respect it and guard against creation of suburbs where young immigrants are isolated from the rest of society. More importantly this leads to recognition of the ‘other’, a move away from conceiving historically defined or inherited hierarchies as the sole provenance of social status, toward a notion of dignity more congruent with the ideals of a democratic society or polity, one that is more likely to confer political equality and a full or unimpaired civic status upon all its citizens.[13] This resonates with Judith Butler’s interest to consider how existing norms allocate recognition differentially and what might be done to shift the very terms of recognisability in order to produce more radically democratic results.[14]

Fr. Gerry wanted to make borders between people permeable, shared and complementary by stressing their reciprocal enrichment and the humanity of all. There is a need to expose oneself to the ’unknown’ other, and to reject myths and unfounded stories. This will allow the shedding of new light on both groups[15] and for the transformation of stereotypes. This process will break and rupture culturally exclusive boxes and compartments and build bridges across different sections of society. Such a process reverses negative psychological repertoires at both individual and community levels that stand in the way of multiculturalism. Fr. Gerry walked the path of peacebuilding and mutual understanding, a path that must be trodden now as our world is becoming transformed by wars, bigotry, famine, global degradation and population migrations. Reaching out to the other is one way to start the journey. Fr. Gerry is reported to have visited more Protestant churches than any other Catholic priest in Irish history.

[1] See Nasar Meer &Tariq Modood, How does Interculturalism Contrast with Multiculturalism?

[2], Concepts such as interculturalism, understood as exploring the benefits of national rich cultural heritage and opportunities to learn from different cultural traditions with communication and dialogue as key aspects als compete with or challenge the concept of multiculturalism.

[3] Tariq Modood and Jan Dobbernack , A left communitarianism? What about multiculturalism?,

[4] Marková, I., Linell, P., and Gillespie, A. 2007. Trust and distrust in society. In: I. Markova and A. Gillespie. (eds.) Trust and distrust: sociocultural perspectives. Charlotte: Information Age, p. 3-27

[5] David Herbert, D. 2004. Religion and civil society: Rethinking public religion in the contemporary world . Aldershot: Ashgate, p. 87

[6] Marková, I., Linell, P., and Gillespie, A. 2007. Trust and distrust in society, ibid.

[7] Stevens, D. 2004. The Land of Unlikeness: Explorations into Reconciliation. Dublin: The Columba Press, p. 135

[8] Parekh, B., 2000. Rethinking multiculturalism: cultural diversity and political theory. London: Palgrave. Parekh, B., 2006. Europe, liberalism and the ‘Muslim question. In: T. Modood, A. Triandafyllidou and R. Zapata Barrero, eds. Multiculturalism, Muslims and citizenship: a European approach. London: Routledge; Taylor, C., 1992. The politics of recognition. In: A. Gutmann, ed. Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

[9] Anheier, H. K, and Kendall, J. 2000. Trust and voluntary organisations: Three theoretical approaches. Civil Society Working Article 5: Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics, p.11

[10] Parlevliet, M. 2001. “Conflict Prevention in Africa: a Matter of Containment or Change? The Role of Civil Society in preventing deadly conflict in Africa”, in: E. Sidiropoulos (ed.), A Continent Apart. Kosovo, Africa and Humanitarian Intervention. Johannesburg: South African Institute for International Affairs, p.2

[11] Brown, Rupert, Prejudice: Its Social Psychology (Oxford, 2010), 59

[12]Ibid. 105

[13] Charles Taylor, 1992. The politics of recognition. In: A. Gutmann, ed. Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

[14] Judith Butler, Frame of War: When is life grieveable?

[15] Bar-Tal, Daniel and Yona Teichmann, Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish (Cambridge, 2005)


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