Obituary: Father Gerry Reynolds, priest and peacemaker

Fr Gerry Reynolds, campaigner for peace in Belfast who risked his life to bridge the community divide. Picture: PA
Fr Gerry Reynolds, campaigner for peace in Belfast who risked his life to bridge the community divide. Picture: PA
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Born: 1933, in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. Died: 30 November, 2105, Belfast, Northern Ireland, age 82.

The death after a short illness of Fr Gerry Reynolds in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast yesterday has caused great sadness on the both sides of the political and religious divide in Northern Ireland.

That in itself is perhaps the greatest tribute to this priest of the Redemptorist order who placed his own life in considerable danger in order to assist the peace process in Ulster.

With others at Clonard Monastery, located between the Protestant enclave of Shankhill Road and the Catholic area around the Falls Road, Fr Reynolds worked for three decades in the cause of peace and reconciliation. Along with his great friend at Clonard, Fr Alec Reid, he made the Monastery central to the peace process – it was there that John Hume of the SDLP first met Gerry Adams on January 11, 1988, to discuss and eventually agree a peaceful way forward for Northern Ireland.

Born to a farming family in Mungret in the suburbs of Limerick, Fr Reynolds lost his father when he was just six. His deeply religious mother brought him up and from an early age there was little doubt that he was destined for the priesthood, plumping for the Redemptorists over that other missionary order, the Kiltegan Fathers.

In his home city, the Redemptorists are known simply as “the fathers”, and the church at Mount St Alphonsus is renowned for its beauty and sanctity. Reynolds was irresistibly drawn to the order, and took his first vows in 1953.

It is important to realise that Fr Reynolds’ membership of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer was key to his life.

The Redemptorists are a missionary order founded by St Alphonsus Liguori in Naples in the mid-18th century. They live and work in more than 70 countries around the world – they have long had a presence in Scotland, especially at St Mary’s Monastery in Kinnoul, Perthshire.

By its very nature from when it was established in the back streets of Naples, the Redemptorist order sees little difference between missions to the people of cities such as Belfast and the more traditional view of Christian missions to undeveloped countries in the Third World.

They are also leaders within the Roman Catholic Church in the cause of social justice. As the Order’s website states: “Redemptorists believe that the saving love of God touches the whole person and calls for the transformation of social injustice into respect for the dignity of all men and women.”

It was the missionary aspect of their work that inspired him. He studied for a BA in Galway and then studied theology at the order’s seminary, being ordained in 1960.

Most of the next two years were spent preparing for mission work, before taking up several roles in the publications section of the order in Ireland.

He was appointed leader of the Redemptorist community in his home city of Limerick in 1975, but by his own admission he did not succeed in the role – perhaps his innate kindness stopped him from taking the decisions necessary of a leader.

He then moved to the community at Athenry and was inspired by the 1982 visit to Ireland of Pope, now Saint, John Paul II, to reinvigorate his personal mission.

The following year he moved to Clonard, and his ecumenical outlook began to develop at the height of the Troubles – he saw only too closely the carnage and terror on the streets of Belfast.

In doing so, Fr Reynolds was following in a family tradition as his Redemptorist uncle, Father Gerard Reynolds, helped Fr Daniel Cummings set up Clonard’s pioneering “Mission for non-Catholics” in 1948.

An early opponent of Clonard’s mission to non-Catholics was firebrand Protestant preacher the Rev Dr Ian Paisley, but suffice to say he mellowed in his opposition later in life – Fr Reynolds once asked his congregation to pray for Mr Paisley.

It was Fr Reid who responded to Fr Reynolds’ question “how do we stop the killing” by saying that dialogue was the only hope.

There then began a special ministry, now known as the Peace and Reconciliation ministry, within Clonard. Its first expression was the development of a friendship between Fr Reynolds and the Rev. Ken Newell, a local Presbyterian minister, that became the Fitzroy-Clonard Fellowship, for which both men were awarded the Pax Christi International Peace Award in 1999.

Such divide-crossing was dangerous in Belfast then, but while Fr Reid involved himself with much of the negotiation and horse-trading, Fr Reynolds worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring together Catholics and Protestants at many levels. In 1994 he went to a Protestant church in the Shankhill area, beginning the Unity Pilgrims movement that continues to this day.

In 2011, he was the founder of the eucharistic ecumenical “In Joyful Hope” initiative which promotes shared communion between Christians. He was still in charge of Clonard’s Peace and Reconciliation efforts until shortly before his death.

In person, Fr Reynolds was outgoing yet saintly – a holy Catholic man who nevertheless related well to peoples of all faiths.

In an interview he once described how Fr Reid and he got directly involved with Hume and Adams, and later Martin McGuinness and even the envoy of prime minister Tony Blair.

“As a congregation we have the freedom to take whatever initiative we believe is right for the sake of the Gospel.

“At the time no one was talking to Sinn Féin despite their electoral mandate and this dilemma had to be overcome or there would be no political progress.

“The Lord does not want us to be fighting full stop. It’s God’s will for us to live in peace and care for one another.”

That final sentence should serve as a fitting epitaph for this courageous and holy priest, as it summed up the mission of a great Redemptorist.