Tuesday, November 28, 2006

August 11, Part 2: Meeting Gerry Adams

Clonard Monastary, a Catholic enclave nestled within a Protestant neighborhood on the west side of Belfast, promoted peace in Northern Ireland in a unique way. During the 1980's, as Belfast got sick of the Troubles, but before the goodwill to make peace existed, the Clonard monks used their good offices as a clandestine negotiating place for (still officially "terrorist") IRA members to meet and arrange local ceasefires with Protestant militias. The trust built in these informal, off-the-record meetings proved crucial to the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

The irrepressible Brian McKee had arranged 40 tickets for the Americans and Germans to attend a rare Friday night concert at historic Clonard Cathedral, its interior decorated almost wholly in stained glass and mosaics colored purple or lavender. We entered at sunset into an eerie, otherwordly church. Strange reflections radiated from the impact of the rays of the setting sun upon the cathedral's purple interior. We felt much nearer to the presence of Jesus than I usually feel in Catholic cathedrals.

While I was silently meditating, a buzz passed through the crowd, and Brian (not Brian McKee, but Brian, the young priest who traveled with us and said some of our Masses) said that Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein and rumored onetime IRA member, had arrived. He asked me, mindful of my political interests, "Would you like to meet Gerry Adams?"

I was nonplussed, and mindful of being one of many, so I gave (I thought) a safe answer, "No, I'm sure he's a busy man who doesn't want to be interrupted at a concert." So the matter should have ended - until, five minutes later, Father Brian tapped me on the shoulder and says, "Let's go." I looked up, and standing with Father Brian was a balding man in a brown suit. I've been around politicians often enough to instantly realize that he was Gerry Adams's body man. "Whoo boy," I thought to myself, "this is the real deal."

The two men ushered me out a side entrance to Clonard Cathedral and through a long wood-paneled hall to the doorway of a VIP room. Father Brian whispered into my ear, "Bishop Donal will introduce you."

We entered the room. Father Brian tapped Bishop Donal on the shoulder. The bishop broke off his conversation with another person, turned, said a few words of introduction, and I was face to face with Gerry Adams. We exchanged greetings and pleasantries; then, to my delight, he consented to have Father Brian take a snapshot of the two of us. I have a huge, goofy grin on my face, but I didn't care - I, raised in the Catholic church, had met the leader of the struggle for a Catholic and united Ireland.

Amazingly, I nearly forgot my encounter in the wondrous music we enjoyed that evening. Colin Reid, an exquisite, melodic classical guitarist, opened for the twelve-person acapella choir, Anuna. Their genres ranged all over the map, from Latin chant to traditional Gaelic to contemporary folk songs. I can't do justice in words to their voices. Ethereal, wispy, haunting music wafted through the candlelight as the choir members glided to different positions in the dimmed cathedral. It was unlike, and better than, any choir I had ever heard. It was the final blessing in a day full of blessings.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

August 11, Part 1: The Strenuous Life

On the morning of August 11, we went to Woodhill, an outdoor activity center deep in the County Antrim wooded countryside. We Americans and Germans were older and more able than the usual crowd at Woodhill: middle-schoolers and handicapped students. Therefore, the activity directors there prepared a full day for us.

We began with whole-group team building games, such as bouncing a football from one end to the other on a giant parachute, funneling a golf ball through short lengths of PVC pipe without dropping the ball, and running, 20 people across, under a jump rope. Then, we broke up into small groups of six or seven people and performed mental and physical feats of strength, such as advancing from one stepping-stone to another on a wooden plank, or stacking used tires in a Tower of Hanoi puzzle.

I helped barbecue a mountainous stack of hamburgers and hot dogs for our lunch, but our wackiest Woodhill activity was yet to come: banana-boating. The River Bann, a wide and deep (albeit not long) stream, separates County Antrim from County Derry. Even in early August, the water was no warmer than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We put on hideous-looking, skintight wetsuits, life jackets, and borrowed old shoes. Fortunately, I can't see five feet without my glasses, so I was spared the sights. The teens were highly amused to see each other in such ridiculous outfits.

When we drove two kilometers from Woodhill to the river's edge, we had a choice: patter about in individual canoes, or go banana-boating. I was scared out of my wits, but the teens talked me into banana-boating. This involved sitting on a long, bright yellow inner tube-like object with six seats, leaning with the boat, and generally hanging on for dear life. We did this for three or four minutes; then, our guides dumped everyone off the banana boat into the icy waters and we had to dogpaddle back to the dock.

I felt great after it was all over and we had changed back into our clothes for the bus ride back to Belfast. I was petrified at the thought of banana-boating, but overcame my fears and had a rollicking good time of it!

To Be Continued...

For those of you eagerly awaiting my next post, please wait patiently! August 11 and 12 will appear in a special double post on Tuesday.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

August 10: Following Giants' Causeway

Adulthood is an achievement, not a birthright. Turning 18 is a biological event. Adulthood comprises much more: first, the ability to decide what is important and what isn't; second, wholehearted commitment to your goals, even when momentary pleasures and temptations distract you from the task at hand.

Very few people realize these facts with ease. Most of us waste our time doing trifling things and realize the tawdriness of temptations before we become adults. Some people, regrettably, take most of their lives to discover the truth. I was luckier; for me, everything changed when I crushed my ankle.

For two St. Colette's teens, everything changed when their good friend, Dane, slipped going out of a hot tub and got gashed by a glass drinking cup. Both of them shared my disgust for blood and wounds, but they rose to the needs of the moment. One applied pressure to the wound with a towel, thereby preventing Dane from going into shock. The other made her first-ever 911 call, ensuring that EMS arrived on the site in minutes and saving Dane's life.

Corrymeela, the place where we ate our boxed lunches, saved many lives itself. It is a retreat center and sanctuary on a hill overlooking the town of Ballycastle and the Irish Sea. During the Troubles, it was a safe haven for both Catholics and Protestants. Now, Corrymeela sponsors interfaith programs for summer campers and teens with a record of legal troubles. We took fantastic pictures looking down from the hillside to open water.

I kept thinking of adult duties at Giants' Causeway that afternoon. There are two routes at Giants' Causeway: the low route, where you can climb among the hexagonal basalt formations, or the upper route, where you climb along a cliff edge and look down on the geometric patterns of the rocks. About a dozen of us took the upper route. Irish afternoons are notoriously windy; on an exposed cliff, it was brutal. It was hard to stand or walk upright. Conversations had to be shouted over the howling, gusting gale.

We made our way down, and the weather calmed by the time we reached Portstewart (passing the famous Royal Portrush golf links on the way). Fr. Raymond, one of the several Irish priests who traveled with the Americans and Germans, extended the open hand of Irish hospitality to us that evening. We celebrated a simple Mass at his parish, then walked through the streets of Portstewart to his own home for supper. There, inside and outside his house, volunteers from his parish cooked and grilled food for about 60 people.

After the meal, on a day when I learned about how to be an adult, I got to be a kid again: Fr. Raymond called for a football match between the Americans and the Europeans (the Germans and our Irish hosts). We played in Fr. Raymond's long, narrow backyard beside his beautifully kept garden; I was astonished, but his grass was lusher and his plants hardier than any garden in Michigan. During the game, we fought to a 5-5 tie, but Brian McKee, playing with the gusto of a schoolboy, won it on a brilliant diving header.

Day 4 is coming tomorrow!

Friday, November 24, 2006

August 9: Murals

It seems daffy that Catholics and Protestants would hate each other to the point of murder. Ramesh Ponnuru, a zealous editor for the National Review, recently wrote an uncharitable book calling the Democratic Party The Party of Death, but so far as I know, Democrats walk the streets of Washington, D.C. safely at night. Sadly, the rhetorical in our own culture became all too real in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998.

Briefly: the Irish War of Independence (1919-22) ended with the partition of the island into the Republic of Ireland, consisting of 26 of the island's 32 historical counties, and Northern Ireland, consisting of six counties in the northeast with a Protestant majority. For 45 years, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland lived as second-class citizens. In 1968, they had had enough and began a non-violent civil rights campaign, modeled after Martin Luther King Jr.'s work in the American South.

The British army, which also policed Northern Ireland through the Royal Ulster Constabulatory, clubbed the marchers and looked the other way when Protestant thugs brawled with them. Two cold decades followed of suicide bombings, gun battles, segregated neighborhoods, and glorified "war heroes" who were no better than butchers. At last, both sides tired of the bloodshed, and by 1998 they were ready to make peace.

The uneasy peace has held, but we took a bus tour and saw the legacies all around Belfast - the dozens of wall murals that dot the city, some with images of IRA heroes like hunger-striker Bobby Sands, some with ascerbic political commentary, and - yes - some old, not-yet-washed out paramilitary murals with hooded men and weapons. One particular mural, a beautiful painting of Oliver Cromwell, contained a scroll with the words, "There will be no peace in Ireland until the Catholic Church is crushed!" I found it funny; however, the teens were badly shook up.

After the bus tour, we went to Stormont, the Northern Irish seat of government (now going unused while the Catholics and Protestants struggle to hash out a power-sharing agreement before the December deadline). Our hosts fed us a lavish lunch and allowed us to sit in the parliamentarians' chairs. We took some fantastic pictures on the steps of the snow-white granite building and looking along its mile-long, downsloping driveway.

As the day yielded to twilight, we enjoyed Mass and dinner at St. Colmcille's Parish, near Stormont in southern Belfast. Afterwards, a troupe of Irish tap dancers, between 5 and 16 years old, put on a show for us and our German friends. I watched the performance with Brian McKee's daughter, Fiona, whom I asked, "Is this like piano lessons or ballet in the U.S., something parents make their kids do until the kids get tired of it?" At once, my table broke up in laughter, and Fiona told me I was on the mark.

Day 3 is coming tomorrow!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

August 8: We Arrive in Belfast

Editor's note: this is the first of an eight-part series.

I went to Northern Ireland as an adult volunteer with St. Colette Youth Group from August 7 to August 16 this year. The eight days we spent in fellowship - from the 8th to the 15th - were the most eye-opening and enriching days of my life. We worshiped together, learned together, and relaxed together. We met as strangers and parted as friends.

We weren't sure what to expect when we came to Northern Ireland. The idea began with Brian McKee, the director of YouthCom (the youth ministry office for the Belfast diocese), who had known Laura Piccone Hanchon, St. Colette's youth minister, for many years. He brought together Laura's group, a German youth group who had housed Brian's young people at the last World Youth Day in Cologne, and YouthCom's own youth.

When we stepped out of the Dublin airport terminal, it felt unlike anything we had ever known. The early morning sun blazed down and blinded us as we loaded our suitcases into two rickety, pint-sized buses for the road trip to Belfast. We all felt tired; we had barely slept on our trans-Atlantic flight, and a full day of activities awaited us after our two-and-a-half hour bus ride.

Just past 11:00 a.m. Irish time (five hours' difference from Michigan), we reached St. Malachy's College, a combined K-12 Catholic school and minor seminary in north Belfast. We unpacked and ate a simple lunch with our German fellow pilgrims and our Irish hosts. The bright morning sunshine had yielded to steady rain, so we carpooled across town and became tourists. We explored the Ulster Museum, which included dinosaur skeletons, artifacts from the nearby wreckage of the Spanish Armada, and a frank exhibit about the Troubles. Adjacent to the museum is Queen's University, the best-regarded of Belfast's three universities. We took a leisurely walk through its world-renowed botanical garden and snuck a peek into an ornately decorated, high-ceilinged Victorian lecture hall.

All of us Americans were dragging from fatigue by now, but we returned to YouthCom and gamely held on through a scrumptious dinner and a lively welcoming Mass. After Mass, the American and German teens mixed as an Irish folk band entertained us. Our long first day in Ireland had ended.

Day 2 is coming tomorrow!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Daily meditation

Psalm 91: 1-2

You who dwell in the shelter of the LORD,
who abide in the shadow of the Most High,
say to the LORD, "My refuge and fortress,
my God in whom I trust!"

May these words bring peace. Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Daily meditation

Acts 2:16-21:

Peter proclaimed to the assembly: "This was what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

"It will come to pass in the last days, God says, that I will pour out a portion of my spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams."

"Indeed, upon my servants and my handmaids I will pour out a portion of my spirit in those days, and they shall prophesy. I will work wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire, and a cloud of smoke."

"The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the coming of the great and splendid day of the Lord, and it shall be that everyone shall be saved who calls on the name of the Lord."

May we heed God's command to prophesy out of the fullness of his Spirit, alive in each of us. Amen.