By Philippa Hitchen
Leaders of the four main Christian Churches in Ireland came to Rome on Monday for an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.
The event, organised by the British and Irish embassies to the Holy See, brought together the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, alongside some key political figures who played a part in drawing up the landmark agreement.
Signed in Belfast on April 10th 1998, and approved in a referendum on May 22nd, the accord marked a major development in the Northern Ireland peace process, helping to bring an end to widespread sectarian violence between Catholic and Protestant communities.
The heads of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, Archbishops Eamon Martin and Richard Clarke of Armargh issued a joint statement to mark the 20th anniversary, saying that despite the current fragile political situation, they hoped the occasion would rekindle a spirit of opportunity, healing and hope.
The two Church leaders talked to us about the most important achievements of the Good Friday agreement and about their expectations for Pope Francis' visit to Ireland in August.
Archbishop Martin described the Good Friday agreement as a “life-saving moment” in “people north and south gave their assent to renouncing violence as means to poetical ends”.
Archbishop Clarke said it “opened a door away from violence into a world of goodwill”, giving the peacebuilders a “breathing space” in which to work. The role of Church leaders, he said, is to model good relationships in the hopes that hope that they can “cascade down” to the grass roots.
Fears over Brexit borders
Both leaders express fears about the current climate of anxiety surrounding the Brexit discussions. Archbishop Clarke spoke of concerns that a ‘hard border’ could reignite “fears and antipathy that we are slowly working through”.
Archbishop Martin said it’s vital to avoid “getting back into the language of barriers and borders and walls and division”. In Ireland, he said, “we’re quite good in Ireland at creating walls and barriers, we’re less accomplished at bridge building”. The risk of drawing lines on a map, he added, puts us “back into bunkers, back into our respective corners” where suspicions overtake the desire for reconciliation, creating borders in minds and hearts, which are harder to overcome.
World Meeting of Families
Looking ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families, Archbishop Clarke said he hopes that the idea of “the gift of family” can be restored in the consciousness of all Christian traditions. He notes that Anglican church leaders, as well as the Mothers’ Union are involved in preparations for the event.
Archbishop Martin said he hopes the Pope will “speak into our situation” where so many families have been traumatized by the impact of the Troubles, leaving deep wounds. He adds he hopes the Pope will offer reasons to hope, as well as an “affirmation for the fragile, fledgling peace process that has begun”