22 January 2009

Can anything good come from Nazareth?

Patrick Comerford

The Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute was packed last night (21 January 2009) for the Community Eucharist as we celebrated the Lima Liturgy and welcomed our ecumenical neighbours, friends and guests as we marked the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Our ecumenical guests included people drawn from Roman Catholic, Methodist and Orthodox traditions, including sisters from the Little Company of Mary in Mount Carmel Convent, and Father Godfrey O’Donnell of the Romanian Orthodox Church, a former president of the Dublin Council of Churches.

The guest speaker was my friend and former colleague, Patsy McGarry. Drawing on the Gospel reading, Mark 1: 4-11, he spoke movingly of his experiences of prejudice and sectarianism during his years of work as Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times.

Patsy McGarry’s address:

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asks Nathanael in today’s Gospel reading. It is a question which is really, a barely disguised prejudice. It is a prejudice which is perennial and frequently to be found wherever two or three are gathered.

Applied to race as much as place, it is part of our human nature. Unchecked, its effects are inevitable as gravity and can be crushing of any belief in the goodness of humanity.

Watching that powerful, deeply moving documentary I was a Boy in Belsen on RTÉ One television last Sunday night, was to be reminded again of where such prejudice can lead, as Tomi Reichental recalled the horrors of being a Jewish child in Europe of the 1940s.

In that instance, six million Jews, as well as gays, gypsies and other social outcasts, were exterminated because of a belief that nothing good came from among such people.

That such prejudice was fanned through the millennia by Christianity, particularly where Jews and gays are concerned, is not in doubt. Even the phrase “perfidious Jew” survived in the Good Friday rite of the Roman Catholic Church for a further 15 years after the ending of World War II – until 1960, when it was removed by Pope John XXIII.

There is also no doubt that Pope John Paul’s praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000, and as a Jew would do, set a new template. But how can one, albeit powerful gesture undo the persecution and slaughter that was the experience of the Jewish people for 2,000 years? It cannot.

Last Sunday night also, a mere 75 minutes before Tomi Reichental’s documentary, we saw on the Nine O’Clock News how that same people, so persecuted for thousands of years, could turn around within two generations to mount a savage and prolonged attack which involved inflicting 13 deaths for every one of their own … because nothing good ever came out of Gaza.

You might say that witnessing such events is enough to make pessimists of us all.

And yet we don’t have to leave this tiny island to know where such prejudice can lead. The torment of our own history shows us.

Until 1829 the majority on the island were, by law, condemned to a condition of institutional ignorance and poverty because what good ever came from among Roman Catholics?

Then the boot was on the other foot and, with the introduction of the Ne Temere mixed marriages decree of 1907, a Protestant who married a Catholic had to give a written undertaking to raise all resulting children Catholic. It led to what I have described elsewhere as a form of `bloodless genocide’ where our Protestants were concerned.

I remember speaking in 1988 to the late Church of Ireland Dean of Cashel, David Woodworth, about the effect of that decree. He told me of four Church of Ireland families in the south-west, each of which had 13 children in the 1930s period. When we spoke not one of their descendants was Church of Ireland. All were Catholic.

More recently we have had bloody slaughter. In November 1983 INLA gunmen opened fire on a prayer meeting in the Mountain Lodge Pentecostalist Hall at Darkley, south Armagh, killing three of the congregation and injuring several others, because what good ever came from among such people?

We had the murder of young Protestant famers along the border for the same reason and the murders at Enniskillen in November 1987 where 11 people were killed and 63 injured because what good ever came from among Irish Protestants loyal to the British crown?

What the ignorant perpetrators of that deed clearly didn’t realise is that without Irish Protestants there would have been neither Irish identity, Irish nationalism or Irish republicanism.

And then there was Robbie Hamill, murdered in Portadown in 1997 for being a Catholic. I reported on Drumcree over those years and will not forget where prejudice against Catholics led in Portadown.

For me, it was unforgettably illustrated by the sight of the Catholic graveyard beside St John’s Church on the Garvaghy Rd surrounded by 15- foot high barbed wire fencing with soldiers lined along its walls inside to protect the dead from the living.

They had to do so because during the Drumcree troubles of the previous year graves there had been desecrated. That of Robbie Hamill had been covered in human excrement … because what good ever came from among Portadown’s Catholics?

In April 1999, I had an experience of how a cemetery could become a place of refuge for the living trying to escape such prejudice. It was at Blace on the border with Kosovo, where tens of thousands of Albanian Kosovar refugees streamed into an unsympathetic Macedonia.

Their numbers were so great that they ended up sleeping on the graves of other Muslims in the cemetery there, where only the dead were at peace. And because the Serbs believed nothing good ever came from among Albanian Kosovars.

We, all of us, each of us, has to overcome the innate prejudice we have about where good does not come from. That calls for conscious effort. It is why, particularly here in Ireland, and however frustrating the slow pace of progress may be, a week such as this remains so important. It helps concentrate our minds on overcoming what have been our lethal differences.

At the same time, we must not see the aspiration to Christian unity as being an obsessive imperative. Rather, what we must seek is not a forced or artificial uniformity, but instead the unity in our diversity.

We must seek out that situation where we can continue to value our separate identities while also respecting each others’ and while emphasising, particularly, all that we have in common – which is so much.

We on this small island have been to dark places where we must never go again because we could see no good in the other. We must, consciously, follow Philip’s response to Nathaneal’s question as to what good ever came out of Nazareth. We must ”come and see.”

We must look for the good in the other and keep on doing so, for it is there as it was in Nazareth. Because it too is perennial and not the preserve of any one race or any one place.

You might even find it among journalists!

“Come and see.”

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