Side by side, beneath a large Celtic cross in St Patrick’s Cemetery, Co Armagh, lie the graves of three of my predecessors who played a major role in the events of 100 years ago – Cardinal Michael Logue, Cardinal Patrick O’Donnell and Cardinal Joseph MacRory.
I visited their graves recently and found myself sharing with them in prayer the sincere hopes that I, and the other church leaders in Ireland, have for the centenary service on October 21st, and the anxieties and controversy that it has generated.
Cardinal Logue, a native Irish speaker from Carrigart in Donegal, was 81 at the time of partition. He would not attend the State opening of the Northern Ireland parliament and he consistently spoke out about discrimination against the Catholic community in the parliament’s early years.
He was frequently harassed by the “B specials”, but he maintained a resolute voice of opposition to violence and brutality.
Cardinal O’Donnell, another Donegal man, succeeded Cardinal Logue in 1924. He had been a key negotiator and spokesman on behalf of the Catholic Church in the years prior to and after partition, during which time he was passionate to protect the right of parents to a faith-based education.
He earned considerable respect from all sides and, at his sudden death in 1927, he was recognised as “a man of peace and a promoter of the Gospel”.
His successor in 1928 was Cardinal MacRory, from Ballygawley, Co Tyrone, who had been bishop of Down and Connor at the time of partition. There he had witnessed and condemned injustices against the Catholic people of Belfast, the expulsion of Catholic workers from the shipyards in 1920 and the so-called pogroms which ravaged his flock and drove them from their homes and neighbourhoods.
Although he saw the Treaty negotiations in 1921 as an opportunity for peace, for him partition could only be temporary. He steadfastly refused to recognise the Northern Ireland parliament and continued to work for a united Ireland.
‘Discord’ and ‘strife’
All three of my predecessors, with their brother bishops in Ireland, opposed partition, stating that it “could never be anything but a perennial source of discord and fraternal strife”.
Standing by their graves a century later, I couldn’t agree more. At the beginning of 2021, I shared with my brothers and sisters in the other Christian churches that I could not think of “celebrating” the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland.
We felt it was important for us to do something together this year in a spirit of prayer and friendship
At the same time, we felt it was important for us to do something together this year in a spirit of prayer and friendship to emphasise our common Christian commitment to peace, healing and reconciliation.
Sadly, like many other initiatives in this part of the world, the controversy and commentary in recent weeks surrounding the Service of Reflection and Hope has tended to distort our intention and sincere hopes for a unique moment of shared contemplation and prayer.
In a joint statement issued on St Patrick’s Day, the church leaders emphasised the need to “be intentional in creating spaces for encounter with those who are different from us, and those who may feel marginalised in the narratives that have shaped our community identity”.
In doing so, we aimed “to face difficult truths about failings in our own leadership in the work of peace and reconciliation”.
This week’s Christian act of worship will involve people from across the community – from diverse backgrounds and traditions, and with different beliefs and aspirations – coming together to pray for the healing of past hurts and to seek God’s guidance in a spirit of hope for the future.
At the heart of our joint engagements over the course of this year, we have kept our focus on building relationships for the future. We know that sometimes one has to take risks for peace and that fragile relationships can easily be undermined by hasty or ill-judged comments.
Last October, Pope Francis issued his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti on human fraternity and social friendship. He borrowed the title from the words of St Francis of Assisi who proposed a way of life, inspired by the Gospel, in whic