Recently this year’s group of PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteers commented that, since most of their placements are with Presbyterian or Methodist congregations and community projects in largely Unionist/Loyalist (pro-British) districts, it would be good to have some additional contact with those from Catholic and Nationalist/Republican (pro-Irish) backgrounds before their year ended. 

So prior to our next meeting I phoned a friend who is a Catholic priest in a largely low-income and strongly Republican/Nationalist parish in North Belfast. I asked if he would have time to meet the group and share about the issues and feelings he encounters amongst his parishioners and how the challenges of ministry in his setting compare to those where the YAVs serve. 

Ciaran Dallat readily agreed and said he would be free about 10:30 am after the end of daily Mass.   He also added that we would be welcome to come earlier and attend the Mass at 10:00 a.m. if we so wished. 

The day we met I offered that option to the YAVs and they all wanted to go at the earlier time. Even though out of respect for the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church we would not receive communion, simply being there for the liturgy would be an education for some. Also, most recognized it would be a mark of disrespect to skip the worship bit and just show up for coffee! 

So we headed off to Sacred Heart Parish. Traffic meant we arrived a few minutes after the service had started. We slipped quietly through a side door, which I thought was near the rear of the church. It wasn’t! It was directly in front of the lectern where a lay person was reading Scripture as we appeared. We very conspicuously filed into the front two pews!

A few minutes further into the liturgy, when Ciaran rose to give his brief address he casually told the congregation that there was a group of Presbyterians visiting, looked down at where we were seated, and told us we were very welcome. Then — to both his surprise and ours — the whole congregation spontaneously applauded!

During the passing of the peace and at the end of Mass our group were surrounded by parishioners greeting us. When Ciaran was eventually free and came over to join us I apologized for our late and conspicuous arrival. “All the better,” he said, “it actually meant they knew where you were and could speak to you. I was surprised they applauded, but it shows how much it still means to have folk from a different background choose to associate with you.”

We talked for quite a while with several of the parishioners and then moved into a space where the group could speak privately with Ciaran. I prompted him with a few questions and he spoke about what the local community had been through during Northern Ireland’s 40 years of violence. 

He also shared examples of how that experience still impacts many of his members, what their predominant political outlook is and why, the range of pastoral challenges he faces as the parish priest in such a district, and the opportunities and challenges he encounters in working for reconciliation where he is. The YAVs were incredibly attentive and, making the most of the opportunity, began to ask their own questions.

Two of the things the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer Program is designed to help with is developing a deeper understanding of mission and discerning one’s own calling in God’s work.  So next I asked Ciaran to share a bit about his own background and how he ended up being a parish priest in such a challenging setting.  

He told the group: “I grew up in a family where God was often spoken of in such a way as to remind us that God loves us. When I went to university I knew I wanted to do something with a real purpose in my life but wasn’t sure what. My first year I met a lot of people who hadn’t had the kind of experience I had and did not know that God loves them. That was a shock to me and I decided I was being called to do something about that. 

“So I studied for the priesthood,” he said. “I’ve worked overseas, as a university chaplain in Ireland, in a much more affluent parish, and now in Sacred Heart. The specific needs have varied greatly in different settings, but finding ways of making sure people know that God loves them has been my basic calling in each.”

As we were getting back into the van several of the YAVS commented on how good it had been to visit a different area and to meet Ciaran. Then one said, “Making sure others know God loves them. What a great way of summing up mission and vocation!” 

Indeed! The needs may vary greatly depending upon where we are as will the ways we go about it, but we are all called to do just that — make sure people know that God loves them and that God also loves others, even those we find difficult to love ourselves. 

In fact it is at the core of one of PC(USA) World Mission’s three priorities: “Engaging in ministries of reconciliation amid cultures plagued by violence.” 

Simply choosing to associate with folk from a different background is one of the many ways we can do so — and it clearly matters.

The Rev. Doug Baker is the PC(USA)’s regional liaison for Ireland and the United Kingdom. In this role he helps grassroots Presbyterians from the United States become involved with and learn from ministry in Ireland and the UK and maintains relationships with partner churches.