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From Autumn 2010 Issue

Our Visit To Northern Ireland

Friends, What a privilege it has been to both visit Northern Ireland after no less than sixty years! Yes, and Southern Ireland after twelve years. Indeed, I will narrate the purpose of the northern visit and I’ll leave it to Doreen to narrate the purpose of the southern visit. They both have their own message to tell, although only one month had elapsed between both these memorable tours.

Doreen knew of how I’d repeated so many times how, as a mere twenty year old I’d gone across to Belfast, had come across the young Ian Paisley, four years my senior; and of how – after so much narrow and Puritanical style of fellowship with such Calvinistic narrowness - I’d then swung from that extreme to the other direction. Yes, seeking fellowship and understanding with the monks of the Redemptorist monastery, off the Catholic Falls Road. Yes, as a young enquiring religious enthusiast, anxious to know how the many branches of Christianity ticked, I was looked upon by many as a spiritual vagrant revealing lack of stability and was told by one well meaning cleric that I was fast becoming ‘a spiritual tramp’. Well, I thought to myself then - as I still do today! - that I would much prefer to be viewed as a spiritual tramp than as a denominational clone or just another sectarian pea out of the same sectarian pod.

Outside of Ian Paisley’s Church

Doreen was determined that before I got any further into my eighties that I should see the old Belfast haunts I’d reiterated to her so many times. What a wonderful wife! Consequently we made our way across the sea from Holyhead to Don Lougherne, and then - by the bus that had picked us up from outside our Holywell home - right up from the south of Dublin all the way up to Northern Ireland, and ultimately across to the Stormont Hotel in Belfast. Yes, directly across from the parliament buildings.

What then followed was four days of wonder and nostalgia. Indeed, I know of no more hospitable, clean, open and upright folk as those of the Belfast folk; though of course there are bound to be the exceptions.

Since those personal experiences of religious rivalry and segregation way back within 1950 - when tensions were starting to simmer - the 1960s were later to see them, via the media, having ‘come to the boil’. Yes. with most viscous clashes, bloodshed and death in several localities of that delightful city. Friendly banter in which opposite sides referred to the other as either Mickies or Proddiedogs was later – as we all know - substituted for less congenial terms such as that of heretics or idolators. Yes, and I knew only too well, that a very large percentage of this segregation had been fuelled – if not spearheaded! - by Church leaders on both sides of what would become a literal fence of demarcation! Well, Doreen and I were able to view - via a tour around the great city - several such fences still in existence to this very day. Yes, and not so deep under the surface, I sense that in some quarters much bitterness is simmering today?.

Inside The Redemptorist Chapel

Nevertheless, I was anxious to view both sides of the prevailing divide today; so on the delightful Sunday morning of our brief trip Doreen and I visited dear Ian Paisley’s quite remarkable church; and then – believe it or not – in the late afternoon, we made the long journey up the Falls Road to eventually reach Clonard and its memorable Redemptorist monastery.

Well, apart from the warmth and welcome received from both these extremes, one was made to realise that, for the most militant Christians in Ulster, there is little place - if any art at all - for ‘grey’! One has to be, figuratively speaking, either black or white. I sense we would not have been approved of ‘on either side’ should we have told either church we visited, that we felt guided by God to visit and pray with their ‘opposition’. Indeed, how very sad all this is, especially when past religious leaders – claiming to represent the Jesus of the gospels - have been so terribly responsible for this appalling sectarian divide.

Indeed, most children – who, left to themselves, would have seen no sense in a colour bar or a sectarian divide - had religious leaders in the 1950s instilling the perverted need of segregation into their rival flocks. What a lot of bigots they were in those days! Yes, and regrettably quite a lot of them are still around today. The following lines sum them up, admirably:

We’re members of God’s ‘one true church’; all other ones are damned.
There is no place in Heaven for them: we can’t have heaven crammed!

O my friends, if only the emphasis given by Paisleyites had been on Christ the good shepherd laying down his life in search of a ‘mere’ member of an ‘lesser’ species – a mere sheep that had obstinately gone astray due to its very nature – then Belfast would have become a Beulah rather than a bloodbath in those 1960s that were to follow. Indeed, the same could be said of Papists of the same past period. For example, if they had made more of the likes of a humble Francis Of Assisi whom they never made a priest, rather than that of a haughty and doctrinaire academic called Aquinas - or a later ‘father’ of vivisection termed Descartes! – then more could have been said in that denomination’s favour! Rather than, around the 1960s, being suspected of ‘possibly’ hoarding ammunition under its vaults it would have been renowned for compassion, and an all embracing love, endearing its protestant protagonists who, on the contrary, were led to view it with suspicion.

I speak with honesty - and past first hand knowledge here! - when I say that both sides of the sectarian divide in that, otherwise, most delightful of cities holds in common. It is that both Catholics and Calvinists uphold one basic scriptural lie in common: and – believe me - it’s a big lie at that! It is the dogmatic assertion that animals have no soul and, consequently, when they die then they cease to exist and any thought of them entering heaven is viewed as heresy. Well, what absolute human chauvinism! Their rival concepts of some exclusive heaven - limited to the pious prigs of either Roman Popery, or of so called ‘Reformed’ Protestantism - would be a veritable hell for any simple soul with only a bare minimum of true Christ like compassion.

Animals lived peaceably in the first paradise and all was great until the first human couple messed everything up. Yes, humans made such a mess that Noah built an ark as directed by God; and God saw to it that far more animals occupied it than humans! Yet ‘today’s assumed ark of salvation’ - as interpreted by both these bigoted extremes – well and truly sees to it that our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom are well and truly shut out! What a deadly, distorted view of scripture these past and present prominent ‘pious’ prigs and protagonists have perpetrated! Jesus said: “They shall be known by their fruits”. Well, just look around and you have the answer: enough said!

I tell you this: the ordinary people are not to blame for the past sectarianism of Northern Ireland. Such folk are amongst the very salt of this earth. They are not to blame for walls of division and graffiti today; nor for bombs and bloodshed of the past! However, such cannot be said for church leadership that claims to be the moral and spiritual mouthpiece of the nation. On the contrary, they have ‘much blood on their hands’. Would to God that they might seek to emulate - and disseminate - the true spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, that of Francis Of Assisi, and in more recent times that of a St Martin de Porres, or even an Albert Schweitzer!

A step in the right direction would most surely be the inauguration of animal blessing services on a true ecumenical basis throughout the past troubled parts of Ulster because nothing brings Christians of different persuasions more closely together than do services of animal blessing! I would be delighted to lead such a service, though I might never be asked? Meanwhile, I’ve not only been honoured to consecrate a sanctuary last month in Eire – which Doreen will tell you about in this newsletter – but we’ve also been asked to consecrate a church for animals in Poland next year. This, I know, will again bring Christians of all persuasions together; as well as many sceptics into its sanctuary. If church leaders only but knew it, this is a most wonderful way in which to evangelise. Yes, by following Christ’s final command and taking the gospel ‘to every creature’; and that includes a blind dog such as this one rescued by a wonderful ‘Pro Animale’ greyhound sanctuary which I dedicated, on opening, in 1998


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