17 June 2005


Why thousands flock to Belfast monastery

As the clock ticks down to the IRA's expected statement on its future direction, Clonard Monastery in west Belfast is the focus for prayers for peace.

One of the ten daily services inside the church

Every June, the Catholic church on Belfast's Falls Road draws pilgrims from across Northern Ireland.

The annual Festival of Faith is rooted in Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary and nine successive days of services known as a novena.

The streets around the monastery are festooned with bunting in the papal colours of yellow and white.

Even in the pouring rain the church is filled to capacity ten times a day and the stewards deal manfully with the traffic chaos.

In the grounds, a toilet block has been erected and volunteers from the St John Ambulance are parked up.

Some of the pilgrims bring flasks in anticipation of a long visit. For those who cannot find space inside, loudspeakers carry the services.

There is humour too. Posters advertising the event mimic the catchphrase of a popular lager advertisement by proclaiming: "Clonard - probably the best novena in the world!"

Ten thousand people a day pass through the church and more than 100 lay people are involved in the smooth running of the event.

War years

Fr Aidan Egan, who is among the organisers, says: "If you imagine the Odyssey Arena being filled ten times a day, you realise that you need a bit of help and it's there."

During the war years, Clonard was a place of shelter for the citizens of west Belfast when Catholics and Protestants sheltered together in the vaults of the church during air raids.

But the monastery, which sits on Belfast's peace line, also has a special significance in Northern Ireland's peace process.

Ten thousand people pass through Clonard a day during the novena

Several of its redemptorist priests were involved as intermediaries between republicans and others in the political establishment at various key times in the Troubles.

During the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s, Father Alex Reid helped to search for a settlement to the Maze prison protest.

He later helped in the process of an exchange of ideas between the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, and the Irish government.

The focus of his close colleague Father Gerry Reynolds has long been on ecumenism and the search for harmony between the Christian denominations as a means of breaking down sectarianism.

He welcomes guest preachers to Clonard each year from the Protestant churches.

Terrible price

Fr Reynolds says the desire for peace is very apparent from the written prayers of the Clonard pilgrims.

He told the BBC's News website on Thursday: "There is so much of the pain and the trauma of the Troubles still in people's lives. We have bought the situation that we're in now at a terrible price."

He hopes the IRA's statement will progress politics.

"The hope of us all is, as a secret army, they will end that phase. That they will no longer be a military force, thinking of themselves as a deterrent against some attack from the other side.

"We have moved beyond that. We hope that military potential will be put aside, destroyed, decommissioned, whatever the word is, that it will be obliterated really forever.

"And we hope that we will move into a totally political mode of advance working together towards the common good."

Fr Egan agrees and says Clonard is a force for hope.

"You cannot discount the power of thousands and thousands of people's prayers."

The Clonard Novena continues until 23 June.

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