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Fr Billy Swan

In recently released ‘State Paper’ documents that recorded political events in Northern Ireland in the year 1990, it was revealed that two chaplains at the Maze prison were instrumental in negotiating talks between paramilitaries and the British government. These talks would become the genesis of the first IRA ceasefire in 1994. It was interesting to note from these documents that the leadership of the IRA at the time were willing to work more closely with the prison chaplain Fr Thomas Murphy and to trust him, more than their own political wing of Sinn Fein, in order to negotiate with the British authorities.

These revelations are worth thinking about and represent a challenge to those who campaign for the exclusion of religion from political and social life. They contradict an increasingly tired and disproven theory that religious faith needs to be confined to the private sphere and to be separated completely from one’s social responsibilities. That dedicated clergy were working successfully behind the scenes to achieve peace gives us hope and reinforces our confidence in the power of Christian faith to build bridges within a culture of care that is the vocation of all the baptized.

In his message for the 54th ‘World Day of Peace’, Pope Francis invites Christians to cultivate a culture of care as pathway to peace. In his message, he reminds us that peace is not merely the absence of conflict but is the fruit of people caring for the welfare of the other and who choose not to be indifferent to the concerns of those who are different from us or separated from us in any way. He argues that true peace cannot come from a political settlement only and less still from a military victory where one side suppresses another. Real peace flows from justice and communion between peoples that is built on mutual understanding and friendship. He writes:

“In many parts of the world, there is a need for paths of peace to heal open wounds. There is also a need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter”.

Fr. John Murphy and Rev. Will Murphy did just that, as did many other clergy and lay people who were willing to take risks for peace. In the 1990’s there was a desperate need to find a path of peace after decades of terrible conflict. There was also a great need for healing after the violence that had been inflicted upon people and their families. There was a need for peacemakers who did just what these courageous chaplains did – to work boldly and creatively to initiate a process of renewed encounter where one side would begin to understand the other.

Perhaps the key to success of the efforts of the chaplains was that while they acknowledged the issues, they first saw the people behind those issues and the people effected by them. They did not take sides but always kept in view the common good and the ultimate goal of peace. They saw then and remind us today how a culture of indifference is dangerous because it alienates people from another, leading to situations of injustice which can in turn lead to violence and war. The antidote to this is for each of us to take greater responsibility to create a culture of care where we allow the struggles of others to impact on us, even though we might not be directly affected.

In his homily for the funeral of Fr John Murphy who died on 6th August 2016, Fr Gerry McCloskey paid tribute to this man who exemplfied the words of Pope Francis:

“Fr John led a religious and austere manner of life that was a good example to all. Throughout 'the Troubles' and especially when they were at their height, he would pray and fast and go on pilgrimage and he would get others to do the same with the request 'Pray for the success of this work'. His prayer intentions were simple: for the success of the peace talks and that a just peace would ensue.”

Pope Francis presses this same culture of care at a time of global pandemic. He keeps in view all the people of the world who have been affected, especially the poor and marginalized. He calls on all of us for ‘a common, supportive and inclusive commitment to protecting and promoting the dignity and good of all, a willingness to show care and compassion, to work for reconciliation and healing, and to advance mutual respect and acceptance’. As such, a culture of care represents a privileged path to peace.

For the Holy Father, this call to a culture of care is grounded in God’s care of us. He points to the example of Cain and Abel in the Old Testament who begin a history of brothers and sisters and whose relationship is understood in terms of protection or “keeping”. After killing his brother Abel, Cain answers God’s question by saying: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). Cain, like all of us, was certainly called to be “his brother’s keeper”. So are we called to be 'my brother's and sister's keeper'.

He also shows many examples of how Jesus revealed the Father’s care for everyone and all that He had made. In his Gospel, St John sums up by the Father’s motive for his care of humanity that his Son came to save: ‘For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). God our merciful Father cares. That’s why we should too.

Pope Francis outlines how this culture of care was carried on in the early Church with the commitment of her members to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and how the Church realized her vocation to foster a culture of care down over the centuries. He insists that this remains the collective vocation of the Church today – to cultivate a culture of care among all Jesus’ disciples who see beyond their own needs and reject the terrible indifference that marks an individualism and excessive focus on the self that is blind to the needs of our neighbour.

One of the upsides of this global pandemic is that we have become more socially conscious as a result. We are now more aware how we affect each other and protect each other too. As the vaccines are rolled out in these days and hopes are high that we can soon return to as we were before, how tragic would it be if we were to retreat back to a culture of indifference and once again forget those who have been uppermost in our thoughts and prayers for the past nine months? With his message for this World Day of Peace, Pope Francis is urging each of us to walk into 2021 with a new commitment to a culture of care that will give birth to the peace that binds us together as a human family.

Fr John Murphy and Rev. Will Murphy are inspiring examples of Christians who believed in the power of the Gospel of Christ to change a culture from violence to care. They believed in this power and saw its effects with the achievement of peace. May we too renew our faith in the Gospel’s power to create a culture of care in our day that leads to true and lasting peace in our world. In the concluding words of Pope Francis:

‘May we work together to advance towards a new horizon of love and peace, of fraternity and solidarity, of mutual support and acceptance. May we never yield to the temptation to disregard others, especially those in greatest need, and to look the other way; instead, may we strive daily, in concrete and practical ways, to form a community composed of brothers and sisters who accept and care for one another”.

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