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franciscan - January 1999

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1998

Penitence in Northern Ireland

by Damian SSF

My travels this spring took me to Assisi, with the particular purpose of seeing some of the dire consequences of the 1997 earthquake the previous autumn. As so often happens, tragedy brings its own rare solidarity and I witnessed much strength being born out of weakness. As I left, I spoke to the friars about my next destination: Northern Ireland. They quickly gathered some olive twigs from the gardens of Sacro Convento (itself leaning on scaffolding), ‘Take these to the broken people of Belfast with our prayers’, they said.

The visit to Ulster had been carefully planned with Brother David Jardine SSF and the life-professed in the 1997 Brothers’ Provincial General Chapter. There, David had spoken urgently about the need to express penitence before God and in the hearing of one another, as a means by which a depth of peace can be gained.

I arrived in Belfast on the Eve of Saint Patrick’s Day, 1998. It being a Monday, David had invited me to the weekly Ecumenical Healing Service at Saint Anne’s Cathedral. More than two hundred people had gathered from many denominations.

A choir from the Catholic Church in Poleglass opened the Service and I was invited to speak as an Englishman aware of some of the complexities behind ‘the troubles’. Essentially my message was one of penitence and sorrow for some of what I felt England had been clearly responsible for in Ulster’s broken life. Behind me (in spiritual terms, that is) I knew that my brothers across the water were with me, because many had intimated that they would be on their knees at the same moment of time.

Then, I was joined at the dais by David (sometimes known as an Ulsterman!) and by a Roman Catholic Sister, Margaret McStay. There followed three simple acts of penitence, coming from people representing three recognised sources of the tensions from which violence had arisen over these troubled years. Words spoken in sorrow, silence held between each statement, and the prayer we then said together concluding the short ceremony, ‘Almighty God . . . have mercy on us, pardon and deliver . . .’ heralded a rare, tangible moment of reality, of the emptying out of self-justification , of being filled with God’s cleansing grace and forgiveness.

In the healing ministry that followed the closing hymn, I understand many took the opportunity to make a personal act of penitence, and I noticed many taking home a sprig of olive, focusing perhaps on the generosity of God’s giving in reconciliation and peace. §


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