Irish primate works to bridge Protestant and Catholic 'truth'

November 25, 1990|By Frank P. L. Somerville

One wonders how -- or whether -- the author of "Vanity Fair" would revise his assessment of Irish sectarian intransigence.

Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray wrote a century and a half ago: "To have an opinion about Ireland, one must begin by getting at the truth, and where is it to be had in the country? Or rather, there are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth. Belief is made a party business."

Increasingly, Irish truths, even religious ones, are converging and mixing. The most enlightened and hopeful of Northern Ireland's Christian leaders see the sharing of fundamental religious belief in charity and peace as the way to bring warring Catholics and Protestants together in a new awareness of social and economic injustices.

Unfortunately, however, there is realignment as well as convergence of long-held truths.

Pope John Paul II's recent appointment of a gentle, elderly, cerebral ecumenist to head the Roman Catholic hierarchy for the island of Ireland, both north and south of the border, has drawn warm praise from Protestants and has inflamed the anti-British passions of some Catholic hard-liners.

The appointee is Cahal B. Daly, who has been since 1982 the bishop of the diocese that includes the most deprived and troubled areas of Belfast.

He has a long record of courageous, robust, eloquent opposition to terrorism and violence, especially by the Irish Republican Army. He optimistically insists that "the influence of all the churches" has saved Northern Ireland from an even bloodier civil war. His inner strength belies his small stature and his age. He is 73.

As archbishop of Armagh and Catholic primate of Ireland, he will have to work fast to change minds and hearts within and without his church. The retirement age for Catholic bishops is 75.

But his views and priorities are well-known. He has spoken often, and with riveting sadness, of the personal consequences of sectarian hatred in Northern Ireland, of the number of young men's funerals he attends as a result of the religious and political warfare.

He calls violence his country's greatest evil. "The implanting of violence in our midst," he has said, "has brought a harvest of bitter grapes, grapes of wrath, grapes of sorrow."

When Catholics are killed by Protestants in Ireland, he preaches forgiveness and denounces the IRA policy of retaliation. Mourners have stormed out of funerals he conducted because of this message. At one such funeral in 1988, he warned, "The IRA has no right to execute anybody. They have nothing to offer but death, destruction, division and unending conflict."

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the Northern Irish firebrand who at age 21 in 1969 was the youngest member of the British Parliament, spoke at a Catholic church in West Baltimore this month. She was highly critical of Pope John Paul II for naming Archbishop Daly. She told her friendly Catholic audience that the pope's choice to lead his church in her strife-torn homeland was "a conservative, right-wing theologian who is devoid of compassion."

Northern Ireland's nationalist (and Catholic) Sinn Fein party, which Ms. McAliskey supports, as well as the outlawed Irish Republican Army with which it is allied, has attempted to blunt Archbishop Daly's unremitting call for reconciliation by disparaging him as an apologist for British security measures.

It would seem that the strongest support for the pope's selection has come from the appointee's admirers on the other side of the denominational aisle. His old friend and co-worker for peace, Archbishop Robin Eames, the Anglican primate, greeted the pope's announcement with congratulations, praising the new Catholic primate's "intellectual gifts, courage and integrity."

For years Bishop Daly, Archbishop Eames and other moderates have worked as an interfaith team to try to defuse ancient Irish enmities, to improve conditions for the jobless and uneducated poor and to curtail the bloodshed. Churchmen who have shared their cordial and constructive relationship include the Rt. Rev. A. W. Godfrey Brown, former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Rev. Charles G. Eyre, who has been secretary of Northern Ireland's Methodist Church.

The four of them traveled together to Boston two years ago to make a concerted appeal for an end to the substantial U.S. Catholic financial support of the IRA terrorists in Northern Ireland.

Lest anyone doubt the new Catholic primate's commitment to such interfaith peace efforts, listen to what he said then at a Catholic school in a Boston suburb: "We Catholics must try honestly to acknowledge the faults in ourselves which foster Protestant misunderstandings and prejudices. Ecumenism is closely linked with conversion and with spiritual renewal."

Perhaps even more relevant to the stirrings of old hatreds by people such as Ms. McAliskey is Archbishop Daly's criticism of what he calls the "simplistic view of Irish history" fostered by them.

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