Address by Archbishop Eamon Martin at the Ballymena Borough Church Members’ Forum

04 Feb 2014

Address by Archbishop Eamon Martin, Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh, at the Ballymena Borough Church Members’ Forum evening with Archbishop Eamon Martin and Dr Heather Morris, the President, Methodist Church in Ireland – Ballymena, Co Antrim

The Parable of the Young Man and the Old by Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I often wonder why it was that Wilfred Owen’s war poetry struck such a chord with me as a young teenager. I remember being quite taken aback by the honesty and abruptness of his response to the horrors of trench warfare – his The Parable of the Young Man and the Old; Anthem for Doomed Youth, his withering dismissal of the old lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.

In his parable-poem, Owen is startlingly critical of leaders who sent millions of young men to death ‘one by one’, rather than slaughtering “The single arrogant ‘Ram of Pride’ within them.”

Whenever the Great War is mentioned, I invariably think of my grand uncle Edward who was one of the hundreds of thousands mowed down on Flanders fields. My granny often spoke of him and amongst the family treasures she kept a postcard he’d sent from Southwark, England not long before he disembarked for Europe. More poignant still is the letter from a Rev E Devas, the chaplain who wrote to my great granny to confirm that her son Edward had died in action, but reassuring her that he had received a Catholic burial ‘in a blessed grave with a proper cross’.

So when I heard last month that Ireland’s memorial records were being published in an online archive I searched at once and found him: Edward Doherty, Meedenmore Co Donegal, Gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, killed in action 19 September 1917, resting in Flanders fields.

I find myself thinking a lot about him this year, which marks the centenary of the start of the Great War. I remember the amazing scenes back in 1998 of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and President Mary McAleese opening the Peace Park and Tower in Messines, Belgium. The other day I looked up the wording of the inscription on the bronze tablet which they unveiled in the centre of the park. It is entitled “Peace Pledge”:

“From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War … As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance … we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society … we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace”.

In fairness to the President and Her Majesty they did not forget the pledge of mutual respect and friendship which they made that day in Flanders fields. Who could have imagined the incredible images of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Dublin and Cork two years ago and the way it transformed relationships at the very highest levels between our two islands? It shows us the power of creative and courageous leadership. I believe that much leadership can still be given to re-energise the search for peace and reconciliation at every level of our society.

I remain hopeful with regard to our “peace process”. Perhaps I am what they call a “realistic optimist”. As a Christian, I believe profoundly that good will ultimately prevail in all things and that a better future is always possible. I believe that following the example of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, each of us is capable of moving beyond our fears, hurts, memories, and of overcoming what Wilfred Owen called the “Ram of Pride” to help imagine and build a healed and reconciled future. Yet, precisely as a follower of Jesus, I expect the journey to a brighter and more prosperous future to be challenging. It will be marked by starts and stops, by successes and failure. In short, I expect it to mirror the Way of the Cross by which all human healing, redemption, and reconciliation is ultimately wrought.

As a realistic optimist, I prefer to focus on the huge amount that has already been achieved in our peace process. This is not to say, however, that I am not sometimes frustrated that progress often appears painstakingly slow. Like many others, I think: isn’t it a pity that our politicians were unable to reach a clear agreement after months in the Haass talks? The failure to broker agreement has not been cost-free. Confidence in the ability of politics to resolve difficult problems has been undermined. Trust between the parties and even between whole communities is again being put under strain. It will take courageous and creative leadership to move things forward, a leadership that has enough self-belief and commitment to the greater good to look beyond the next election or purely party-political interests.

While Dr Haass has remained utterly diplomatic and professional in his response, do we really believe that rejecting the proposals of a man of such international standing and integrity does not damage our reputation internationally? Or the case for inward investment? It was interesting to hear Dr Haass say at the weekend: “Whether it’s next week, next month or next year, sooner or later the five parties are going to have to come back to those three issues (parades, flags and the past). The range of compromise is not going to be fundamentally different from what was in the negotiations that just took place.”

One of the concerns we expressed as a Church in our submission to Dr Haass was that the search for peace and reconciliation in our society tends to be left almost exclusively to politicians. We suggested that civic society, voluntary organisations, schools and Churches also have a responsibility to inject new momentum and creativity by modelling positive relationships and challenging sectarianism.

I am mindful here of something Pope Francis said in his message for the World Day of Peace on New Year’s Day last month. Pope Francis spoke of the “good news that demands from each one a step forward, a perennial exercise of empathy, of listening to the suffering and hopes of others, even those further away from me” (n.10).

In this regard, I want to lend my full support to the statement issued by the four Church Leaders and the Irish Council of Churches following the Haass talks. I think we in the Churches have a particular responsibility to lead the way in transforming relationships and in healing the pain of the past. Perhaps one way in which we could do this would be to develop a ‘covenant of friendship’ between our Churches at leadership level and offer support to our local congregations and parishes in developing similar ‘covenants’ at local level. Making a solemn Christian commitment to friendship and good relations, to treat each other with dignity, respect, understanding, tolerance and friendship compromises no doctrinal principle. It simply draws on the values of the Gospel of Christ and on the powerful principles of good neighbourliness, decency and generosity that are the leaven of peace that Jesus calls each of us to be in the world.

Last year alongside Derry-Londonderry’s City of Culture celebrations, the Catholic, Methodist, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Churches joined in friendship to present a specially commissioned gift of the Gospel of Luke to forty thousand households in the City Council Area. Members of our Churches went out two by two, knocking on the doors of every house, offering them the gift of the Good News of Jesus Christ. It was a wonderful demonstration of creative leadership and a powerful symbol of our companionship as Christians – the whole project brought us closer together and has built strong and lasting friendships.

I am not naïve about the complexity and sensitivity of finding a way through the difficulties that lie ahead. But I am resolute in rejecting the horror of our past with its lies and violence that doomed so many of our youth. One of the most moving moments of my life was hearing now Blessed John Paul II speak in Drogheda in 1979 during his apostolic pilgrimage to Ireland. I was only eighteen at the time but I remember vividly the Holy Father, his voice trembling in prayer and emotion, pleading with the men and women of violence. Pope John Paul’s words were unequivocal: “violence is evil … violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems … Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity”. In language of passionate pleading, he added: “On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace”.

I welcome the assertion in the final Haass document that everyone in our society “was not equally to blame” for the violent conflict of the Troubles. We should not be afraid to question the creeping narrative that “we are all equally to blame” [for what happened in the past] and to challenge any attempts to ‘revise’ or ‘control’ the narrative about the past. The vast majority of citizens across this island and on all sides of the community rejected paramilitary violence.

But now, as in Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Young Man and the Old, we must overcome the “Ram of Pride” which could so easily drive us back to those dark days instead of forward to a brighter future for our young people. It is the “Ram of Pride” that so wraps us up in self-righteousness and binds us so rigidly to our own narrative and demands that we simply end up backing ourselves and others into impossible corners. There we stand, eyeballing each other, waiting for someone to blink. If only instead we could extend the hand of friendship and help lever each other out.

In the end we are faced with choices. Peace is a choice, forgiveness is a choice, reconciliation, tolerance and respect – each of these are a choice. Of course the journey to making that choice will be different for each of us. For those who have suffered most through the loss of loved ones the choice is particularly difficult. Our challenge as Churches and local Church communities is to accompany, nurture and resource that journey for the individuals and communities around us.

We must continue to encourage our politicians to be creative leaders. By all accounts the parties had scoped out considerable lines of agreement on some of the complex problems that remain in our peace process. I welcome the fact that they are still talking and the indications from the two governments that they stand ready to support and invest in any agreement. I encourage our politicians to put scaffolding around their areas of agreement and to build on these as quickly as possible. Moving ahead in some areas would be a powerful signal that politics works in resolving even the most intractable of our difficulties. Let us keep praying for peace because there are so many important issues that our politicians need to get to – in education, health, housing, employment. Too many people feel left behind or forgotten in the path to peace. Too many of our young people live lives trapped in addiction, hopelessness, despair.

The great Irish saint and peacemaker St Columbanus once said: “The knowledge that peace is good is of no benefit to us if we do not practice it.” As we prepare to celebrate in 2015 the 1400th anniversary of his death, I offer his prayer for our future: “Let Christ paint his image in us with his words: My peace I give you, my peace I leave with you.”


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