Sean O’Conaill © Reality, 2004
Just as the heartfelt prayer of a teenage boy once changed the history of Ireland forever, prayer is once again changing Ireland for the better in its deepest crisis of faith for centuries.
Although I have often criticised the clergy of the Irish Catholic Church, I must here acknowledge that they have given me the gift I value above all others: an unshakeable belief in the reality of a loving God and the power of prayer. This is why, despite all of my frustrations, I still love my church and seek to serve it.
We take it for granted that our bishops, however aloof, have always pointed to a power above themselves – a mysterious power of love that can dwell even in the heart of a child. We should not take this for granted, because it is the great gift of the church to all of us – a gift that we will lose at our peril.
When humans tell one another to stop worshipping God, we are well on the way to a situation in which some human will be worshipped as a God. This happened in Germany, the Soviet Union and China in the twentieth century. Hitler, Stalin and Mao made themselves the objects of personality cults that gave them absolute power. The results shatter the heart and are still shaking the world.
And in North Korea today a similar atheistic personality cult of ‘the Great Leader’ has produced a famine that has led to reports of cannibalism. The same ‘Great Leader’ has authorised the testing of chemical weapons on the living bodies of men, women and children.
When we stop believing in God, we are ready to believe in almost anything else – and fall victim to ‘the persuaders’ – politicians who promise heaven on earth and commercial forces that want to sell us ‘worthiness’ in a shampoo or an eye-liner. That is the state of our world today – rapidly descending into futility, violence and environmental havoc.
But God, as always, has the situation in hand. Through people who sense a spiritual dimension to everything, and seek to reach it through prayer, the Trinity are shaping a new wisdom that will grow as our crisis deepens.
Of all true stories of the power of prayer that I know, none has more impressed me than that of Michael and Bridie McGoldrick of Craigavon. I have known them now for six years, and continue to learn from them.
In early July 1996 Michael and Bridie received almost the worst news that any parents could. Their only child, Michael, had been cruelly murdered by the LVF in the period of tension that always precedes the July Orange parades in Northern Ireland. He left a wife and child, with another baby on the way.
Initially stunned, Michael and Bridie even considered suicide. Then they turned to prayer, and everything changed. On the day of young Michael’s funeral, in an atmosphere of great tension centred on nearby Drumcree, his father went to the assembled TV cameras and delivered what will one day be recognised as one of the greatest sermons in Irish Christian history. It consisted of just six words:
“Bury your pride with my boy!”
Michael was speaking above all to the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, and his message was clear. Hurt Catholic pride must not express itself in a reciprocal atrocity.
He was putting his finger on the basic reason for the atrocities that have stained militant Irish nationalism over the past thirty-five years: injured pride. No injury is greater than that of a parent whose child is murdered, and the very first human instinct is to strike out in retaliation – to deliver a similar humiliation to the supposed perpetrators.
Michael and Bridie’s central prayer was for the gift of forgiveness. They received that gift, and their lives have never been the same since. They became totally God-centred people, and received also the greatest gift of all: the gift of unconditional love.
In 1997 Michael and Bridie met Tom Lennon, founder of a small charity called United Christian Aid. Born in Co. Offaly, Tom had been caught up in Northern Ireland’s violence in the 1970s, but had later experienced his own conversion. In the mid 1990s he had felt strongly called to found a charity that would appeal to all Christians in Ireland to help the poor of Eastern Europe.
In that year, 1997, Michael made his first visit to Romania with Tom, encountering poverty and misery that was almost unimaginable. It included the slow death of children from Aids – contracted through mistaken transfusions of infected blood required by the Ceausescu ‘government’ as a cure for malnutrition. It included also infected water and wretched habitations without sanitation in winter temperatures as low as -15C – with no state support of any kind, in a devastated economy.
Michael became totally aroused by the idea of binding Christians in Northern Ireland together by bringing home to them the far greater miseries of eastern Europe. Initially transporting clothing and food across Europe, he and Tom soon realised that something else was far more portable, far less prone to exploitation by corrupt frontier officials, and far more needed in Romania: money. Michael developed a system of family sponsorship, uniting families in Ireland with poorer families in the town of Cernavoda, Romania.
The euro and the pound sterling will buy three times as much in Romania and Moldova as in Ireland. Initially warned that poor Romanians were not used to handling cash and would probably waste it on alcohol, UCA discovered that the reverse was true. The poorest people responded well to the responsibility and power that money gave them, and usually made wise choices. For example, they could now equip their children for school and send them there without fear of humiliation – or buy a gas ring to improve their diet, or bottled water to fend off disease – or weather-proof their dwellings for the winter.
When the requirements for EU entry required the Romanian government to provide a basic income for the poorest families, UCA could not justify supplementing this with more money from Ireland, and so moved its operation to Moldova in 2002. There EU entry was both remote and uncertain, and needs were even more intense. In one village they learned that an old woman had died of hypothermia the previous week. They decided that this must not happen again in the village of Kirkan.
Over the winter of 2003-4 UCA supported over 800 families in Moldova, and next winter it will probably help even more . Most of them live in three villages, but some are based in the capital, Chisinau, and some live in one of the world’s worst places, Transnistria.
Moldova’s widest river is the Dniester. Occupying Moldova from 1944-1991, Russia has decided to maintain military control of the Dniester for strategic reasons, and currently occupies the area to the east of it, Transnistria, with its army. To justify this occupation it maintains the existence of a Transnistrian independence movement. This is led by communist, or ex-communist, Russians.
As a consequence Transnistria is a dangerous place to go. UCA goes there, to help people who will next winter attempt to fend off temperatures that sometimes plummet to -25C with sheets of plastic. They have no other cash income, as the shattered economy of Transnistria is centred upon the drugs and arms trade.
Back in Ireland, we can spend a fortune on mere celebration. What power moved one young Irish couple to call for donations to UCA instead of wedding presents in 2004? That gesture realised £20,000 – money that will save people from despair, disease and malnutrition this coming winter.
As a reward for helping UCA with its occasional newsletter, Michael took me to Moldova for the second time in June 2004. This ten-day experience was even more stunning than the first, and could justify a short book in itself. One particular experience deserves special mention.
Moldova’s Christians are mostly neither Catholic nor Protestant, but Orthodox. Orthodox Christianity – separated from Rome since the eleventh century – has been called the Church’s ‘second lung’ by Pope John Paul II. However, Orthodox-Catholic relations are currently very strained. The reason is that both churches are trying to grow in the same once-communist space.
Orthodox patriarchs (the equivalent of archbishops) complain that we Catholics are trying to poach their members all over eastern Europe – ‘proselytising’. Rome denies this, saying we are simply seeking converts among people who belong to no church. The denial does little good, as Orthodoxy sees a far richer western church infiltrating its space and exploiting its weakness after decades of communism.
Into this complex situation in Moldova now marches a little Irish charity that helps people on the basis of need alone – and most of them are Orthodox Christians.
What power can it be that moves Irish people whose lives have been turned upside down by inter-Christian violence here, to show an example of unconditional love on the far side of Europe? And why would it do so?
Michael and Tom are sure that they know the answer. An unconditional love is a love that has no purpose other than love itself. It has no ulterior motive – not even the motive of developing one church at the expense of another.
Thus, albeit in a small way, Irish Catholics and Protestants are helping to heal relations with the third branch of Christianity, 3,000 miles away from Ireland.
On Sunday 6th June 2004, Michael, Tom and I sat down with the UCA interpreters in the home of the Orthodox priest of Kirkan, Fr Grigori . Earlier we had watched the villagers receive their small subsidy from Ireland, the family sponsorship that assures them of God’s love coming all the way from this little island.
The meal had been prepared by Fr Grigori’s wife, Elena. Their first child, Reluca, was the centre of attention. I became aware of an enormous privilege – the privilege of breaking bread in the home of a Christian minister of an entirely different tradition.
What had brought us all together was simply the power of prayer. Michael’s and Bridie’s had been for an assurance that they would someday be reunited with their murdered son. Tom’s had been for direction – a calling that would please the Trinity. Kirkan’s villagers had been praying with Fr Grigori for help from anywhere at the very moment Tom and Michael arrived.
My prayer had been, since the 1960s, to see the church of Vatican II in action, incarnating the love of a God whose intent it is to bind the whole world together in peace and freedom. I saw it, clearly, that day in Kirkan.
No power on earth is greater than the power of prayer. It creates in the human heart a space for God, the Trinity – who are unconditional love. Moved by that love the Irish Catholic church is now being changed, revitalised – and lay people are leading it into Christian action.