Fr Gerry Reynolds and the Legacy of the Reformation in Northern Ireland

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Dr Gladys Ganiel, a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast.


‘John Calvin, pray for us.’

Those are the words that I discovered while reading the personal diaries of the late Fr Gerry Reynolds (1935-2015), a Redemptorist priest who served for 32 years at Clonard Monastery in Belfast.

Fr Gerry was involved in a number of faith-based, ecumenical peacebuilding initiatives, including the Clonard-Fitzroy Presbyterian Fellowship, the Unity Pilgrims, and the Cornerstone Community. He devoted his life to overcoming the negative legacies of the Reformation in Northern Ireland, which have included suspicion, division and violence.

A few months before Fr Gerry died, Rev Ken Newell, the former minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, asked me if I would write Fr Gerry’s biography. Knowing what I did of Fr Gerry’s life, I gladly agreed.

Yet I was still surprised when I found that a Catholic priest was directing his prayers to one of the seminal figures of the Reformation. Calvin, of course, is the Reformer associated with Presbyterianism and Catholics have long regarded him as a heretic or enemy of the Catholic Church.

But in the personal prayers he wrote in his diaries, Fr Gerry re-imagined Calvin as an ally in supernaturally facilitating the church’s continued mission on earth. So in October 2011 Fr Gerry prayed: ‘John Calvin, pray for us. We want to help our Irish Presbyterian brothers and sisters to complete your reform.’

Fr Gerry believed that the wider church is always in need of reformation, and that Christians from various traditions could work together in reforming it. He could see that the Catholic Church could itself receive wonderful gifts of faith from the Protestant churches in Ireland.

On Easter Sunday 2012 Fr Gerry reflected that ‘the divine vocation of John Calvin’ was ‘to empower the laity of the Catholic Church.’ Fr Gerry was praying that the example of lay empowerment he saw in the Irish and worldwide Presbyterian Church would be extended to lay Catholics, who have typically not taken on leading roles in the Irish Catholic Church.

I have not found evidence that Fr Gerry prayed to Calvin publicly. But the fact that he prayed to Calvin at all is for me an astonishing re-imagining of the legacy of the Reformation in Northern Ireland.

For much of the Troubles, many Protestants and Catholics did not even think of each other as fellow Christians. Fr Gerry saw Protestants and Catholics as united in their differences, believing that all could be enriched by the strengths of each other.

It is possible that some Protestants, who reject the concept of praying to the saints, could be taken aback or offended by Fr Gerry’s petitions. I am not one of them.

Fr Gerry’s prayers show us that the legacy of the Reformation does not need to be irreconcilable difference. Rather, if we work together and pray together, Christians in Northern Ireland can re-form the legacy of the Reformation into one that gives life to all our churches.