Father Gerry Reynolds is expecting me and not expecting me at the same time. He’s suggested a 12.00 pm interview for today only he doesn’t know I’ve said yes, please, because his email system has gone wonky. But even though preparation for the Clonard Novena are to be seen and heard all around, he’s soft-spoken and unhurried. We settle in our armchairs in Parlour 3 at Clonard Monastery and I ask him about his childhood.
He grew up on the edge of Limerick city, where his father was a small farmer who sold milk to the city dairy. He remembers his father well – getting a box on the ear from him for having done something wrong, his father codding him that he could send a message to someone far away by speaking into a little hole in the wall. It sounds like a warm, normal father-son relationship. Then when he was six years old, everything changed.
“My dad was going into Limerick city on a horse and cart . A lorry was driving out and the man driving it might have been a bit under the influence. But a bar projecting from the side of the lorry hit my dad. His leg was broken in three places and he went into hospital. This was the age before penicillin, and with blood poisoning, they weren’t able to handle it. He died two months later, in July 1941. I remember being brought into the mortuary to see my dad laid out. I remember touching his body – his head – and it so cold.”
Many things led to him becoming a priest. He was an altar boy, he had two uncles who were priests, the community in which he grew up was supportive of his vocation.
“And there were moments in my life that drew me to God – little moments of revelation, really. I remember when I was a very small fellow, being out in the meadow one day, looking for flowers for the May altar, and having an extraordinary experience of finding a flower that just blew my mind, it was so beautiful. It was an experience, sort of, of a divine presence. That sense of God’s presence in his creation. You get something of it in Patrick Kavanagh: ‘That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God/ Was breathing his love in a cut-away bog’.”
That sort of moment, as well as the occasional encouraging word from a local priest, from a farmer as they walked home after a day’s work in the field: “He said ‘Good lad, that’d be a good thing to do’. Though I remember too in a hurling match, shortly before I left home to join the Redemptorists, saying I was going there to another fellow – we were hurling together - and he told me ‘Don’t be an eejit!’ But I didn’t listen to him and I was jolly glad I didn’t!” He leans back in his chair and laughs at the memory.
I ask him about being posted to Belfast – how did the image in his head match with the reality?
“I came in the summer of 1983. What I found was, Belfast was very, very different, from reading about it in the papers or hearing about it on the television. You were right up against the reality of Belfast. Just ordinary people caught up in this terribly sad and tragic struggle. The suffering of it, the pain of the people, and the courage of the people as well – you’d be encountering that. And the awful violence that I never could understand. I never would just condemn people - they all followed their own lights; but from a human point of view, to take human life is a terrible thing. My commitment to peace-making is profoundly a religious commitment – a commitment to the living God who doesn’t want us to be at war with one another.”
But did he ever feel that people from outside his community might see him as being on the side of republicanism?
“I never worried about what way people saw me. I was myself. I mean I was and am an Irish nationalist. I believe that Ireland is for the Irish people, it’s wrong to have it occupied and all of that. But my reaction to that was to work gradually towards transforming people’s attitudes, endeavouring to connect with people on the other side. I remember Brother Hugh Murray – he was an old Brother in the monastery at the time - and Hugh used to talk with me. We’d be on the top corridor of the monastery, looking out at the Shankill, and he would say to me ‘You know, we’re all the same people – the very same. We’ve all been exploited, never really got a fair reward for our work, and the tragedy of it is, we’re at each other’s throats’. I came two years after the hunger strikes, in 1983, and from the beginning I came as a learner, trying to understand, but with a deep conviction. People used to say to me ‘They’ll always be fighting here’. I never believed that, because God doesn’t will us to be fighting. And what God wills for us is always possible, if we commit ourselves to it and work for it.”
He’s not dismayed by the state of disarray and crisis in the Catholic Church at present. He’s just back from the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.
“It’s the first Eucharistic Congress that was ecumenical. It began with a day where the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin presided over the celebration of our communion in baptism. I thought that was a glorious day, a tremendous boost for us all. Even committed Catholics can be battle-weary, a bit down, lacking morale. But I don’t think anyone who attended the Eucharistic Congress will lack morale or confidence or hope. The Congress has been an immense blessing – that’s my read of it.”
I comment on the hammering sounds outside as men prepare for the Clonard Novena. Why is it that the Novena is so popular with people?
“I think it touches into the heart of the Gospel message – that God is good, God is loving, God is gracious, God is merciful. And the great sign of the mercy of God is the mother of Jesus who is there drawing us to her Son. People sense something of that. They’re drawn by the simplicity of it. There are lots of people come to the Novena who don’t go to Mass on Sundays at all. Even though you maybe meet them one-to-one at the Novena and encourage them, that now you’ve kind of come back again, make Sunday the central day in your week, make the Eucharist central to your life.”
There is, he concedes, an awful lot of work to be done in that respect. Does that fact not sadden him?
He laughs again. “What’s the good in being sad? But yes, it saddens me to some extent. Our liturgies could be much better. We’re drawn in the liturgy into the mystery of God. And as people realize that, they’ll be drawn to the Mass, drawn to worship.”
Has his life been a lonely one? He’s a celibate man, a member of the Redemptorist order, with no wife or family. Has it been lonely?
“No, not at all. Obviously you miss the intimate partnership of a woman whom you love, but that’s the sacrifice you lay on the altar, that deep need to be loved and to love. To share in begetting a child and children - I chose not to opt for that way of life, so it’s a decision that I freely made and I’m happy in. I have friends in my life, including women friends, who are greatly supportive to me. So I’m happy. It’s not a lonely life. If it were a lonely life you couldn’t live it. You have to be ravished, again and again, by the beauty and goodness and loveliness of God. It’s like the poem by John Donne – ‘Batter my heart, three-person'd God’”.
And blimey, he recites the entire Donne sonnet, word-perfect. In the best sense, this man knows more than his prayers.
I remind him of the saying that when you come to the end of your days, what you’ll regret is not what you’ve done but what you didn’t do. Looking back, is there anything he hasn’t done that he wishes he had?
He laughs. “At the end of every day I have regrets about what I didn’t do! I’ve tended to let my life unfold, I haven’t been a great planner of my life. I didn’t set goals - the Redemptorists have offered me the goals that I have. I suppose there was a time when I wished that I were assigned to Brazil. Some of my class-mates were going to Brazil and there was some talk of it at the time. Then I was sent to Limerick as rector down there and I experienced, I suppose, failure as a rector, and that was tough. But it’s just another part of the journey. I’ve never carried any resentments or anything from that. Had I not failed in Limerick, I probably wouldn’t be in Belfast today. And I’m grateful to God that the providence of my life led me to Belfast, led me to Clonard, led me to work for the reconciliation of the churches. And whatever I contribute, I do my little best”.
As he sees me to the door, I have a sudden image of a football crowd – you know how it is when a player is coming off, the fans do a sort of hands-raised bow, in a we-are-not-worthy gesture? That’s what I’m feeling as I shake hands and leave. You kind of know in your bones when you’ve been in the presence of true goodness, don’t you?