In the spirit of St. Patrick

Experiencing grace in Northern Ireland

Inside Belfast Cathedral’s Chapel of the Holy Spirit is a splen­did mosa­ic rep­re­sent­ing the 1,500th anniver­sary of St. Patrick’s return to Ireland in A.D. 432.

A beau­ti­ful exam­ple of the art adapt­ed to the Romanesque style of archi­tec­ture, the mosa­ic is one of sev­er­al in the church cre­at­ed by sis­ters Margaret and Gertrude Martin, who spent sev­en years assem­bling tens of thou­sands of col­ored tiles to cre­ate the images.

Beneath a tow­er­ing stone arch, Bishop Patricius, or Patrick, one of the ear­li­est Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies to the fron­tier the Romans called Hibernia, stands hold­ing a sham­rock, which, accord­ing to leg­end, he used to explain the Trinity. On the left side, a blind­fold­ed and man­a­cled woman with a harp depicts the pagan dark­ness. On the right side, anoth­er woman rep­re­sents the light of Christ that has come to Ireland.

My com­pan­ions and I were shown this mag­nif­i­cent work of art when we vis­it­ed the Anglican dioce­san church for Sunday morn­ing Eucharist dur­ing a break from our con­struc­tion work for Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland.

Like Patrick, who began his min­istry at Downpatrick near Belfast and is believed to be buried there, we too were on a mis­sion. Not only were we there to help ful­fill Habitat’s broad­er mis­sion of build­ing sim­ple, decent, afford­able hous­es for God’s peo­ple in need, but our vis­i­ble pres­ence was also part of an effort to bring peace to that trou­bled land.

It was October 2000, just two years after the Good Friday Agreement that brought a sus­pen­sion of sec­tar­i­an vio­lence between para­mil­i­tary groups rep­re­sent­ing Catholic nation­al­ists and Protestant union­ists in that part of Ireland that was and is still part of the United Kingdom.

Glencairn, the hous­ing estate where we worked, was near the Peace Line, a kind of Berlin Wall sep­a­rat­ing the two com­mu­ni­ties. But the mis­sion of Habitat was to bring Protestants and Catholics togeth­er to rebuild. Nothing more clear­ly illus­trat­ed this than the fact that our fore­man was a for­mer mem­ber of the Irish Republican Army, and his sec­ond had been a sol­dier in the British Army.

As Peter Farquharson, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of HFHNI said dur­ing a meet­ing, “most of us have a history.”

But so many of the peo­ple we met were liv­ing proof that the past can be redeemed, and that the present and future can be different.

Those who worked along­side us as heli­copters hov­ered over­head and armored vehi­cles rolled down the street defied the old sta­tus quo by pur­su­ing uni­ty, though there were moments of ten­sion and minor con­flict, both in our lit­tle com­mu­ni­ty and in the province, where there was an elec­tion underway.

During our time there, we heard so many sto­ries of grace.

In Derry, Tom Kelly, an artist who paint­ed many of the nation­al­ist murals in the medieval walled city’s Catholic Bogside neigh­bor­hood, showed us por­traits of the civ­il rights demon­stra­tors who were killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972, includ­ing one of the first girls he had ever kissed. I asked how he copes with his anger and pain, and he said that not let­ting go of it only makes it fes­ter. The way he deals with it, he said, is by let­ting Christ share his burden.

One night when we were hav­ing din­ner with our American guide, Dan Wartman, who lived with an ecu­meni­cal com­mu­ni­ty on the Peace Line, we met Tom Hannon, who taught us some­thing about for­give­ness. When Tom’s daugh­ter was 18, she was dis­abled by a sniper’s bul­let. But she refused to hate those who had put her in a wheel­chair. In her ear­ly 40s, she was mar­ried, had just had a baby, and had earned a Ph. D.

One has to be able to for­give to find peace, Tom said.

An old­er man I worked with near­ly every day was a Presbyterian who was obvi­ous­ly prej­u­diced against Catholics, whom he believed were try­ing to take what was “ours.” But he was also dis­mayed by the years of strife and was will­ing to try to find com­mon ground.

“Most peo­ple here are just sick of it,” he said.

Sure, there was resis­tance. Old prej­u­dices die hard. The con­struc­tion project we were work­ing on had to shut down tem­porar­i­ly because of con­cerns about the safe­ty of some of the HFHNI staff result­ing from a sit­u­a­tion involv­ing a loy­al­ist para­mil­i­tary leader in Glencairn. A lit­tle splin­ter group call­ing itself the Real IRA was deter­mined to con­tin­ue its strug­gle. But every­where there were signs of hope.

Belfast Cathedral, once the tem­ple of the priv­i­leged Protestant major­i­ty, had evolved and was com­mit­ted to ecu­meni­cal efforts and the peace process. When one of the priests intro­duced us to the con­gre­ga­tion, they men­tioned they had giv­en thou­sands of pounds ster­ling to Habitat for Humanity of Northern Ireland because they believed in its mission.

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader, was vis­it­ing Belfast at the same time we were, and we took a break from work one day to see him and hear him speak out­side a Methodist church on Springfield Road where the Peace Line divides the city. He made some pleas­ant remarks about reli­gious tol­er­ance and coex­is­tence. But it was the chil­dren from a near­by school who were more inspir­ing. They were Ireland’s future.

One teenag­er, Julie McCann, who pre­sent­ed His Holiness a bou­quet of flow­ers, chal­lenged the very exis­tence of Belfast’s Peace Line.

“Break down these walls that sep­a­rate us. Tear down the walls of hatred and indif­fer­ence,” she urged.

Another stu­dent, Patrick Fagan, prayed: “By the pow­er of your Spirit, make us one. … Help us do our part to bring peace to the world and hap­pi­ness to all people.”

Someone then played Amazing Grace on the uileann pipes, and my eyes filled with tears.

Blessed are the peace­mak­ers. This will­ing­ness to for­give and seek peace reflects the spir­it of St. Patrick, who, though he was cap­tured and sold into slav­ery in Ireland as a youth and lat­er betrayed by his best friend, returned to the place of his cap­tiv­i­ty as a mis­sion­ary and bish­op to teach its peo­ple the ways of peace and bring them the gospel of Christ. Maybe that is why he has always been revered by Catholics and Protestants alike.

He believed it was his call­ing and God’s pur­pose for his life.

“Before I had to suf­fer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud,” Patrick wrote in his Confession, echo­ing the words of the psalmist. “Then he who is mighty came, and in his mer­cy he not only pulled me out, but lift­ed me up … .”

In the two decades since our vis­it to Belfast, there have been prob­lems, but noth­ing like the Troubles that began around 1968 and end­ed with the peace agree­ment 30 years lat­er that trad­ed bal­lots for bullets.

I’ll end with a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney that I’m often remind­ed of when I think of how Northern Ireland has changed:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a life­time
The longed for tidal wave
Of jus­tice can rise up,
And hope and his­to­ry rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a fur­ther shore
Is reach­able from here.
Believe in mir­a­cles
And cures and heal­ing wells.

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