Task of reconciliation is a deeper challenge in peacetime than in the midst of trauma
As we enter a new year and a new millennium, the dominant feeling throughout Ireland is one of hope. Few could have imagined just a year ago that the political scene could have changed in such a dramatic fashion in relatively few months.
For years we have prayed for an end to the violence and for political progress towards stability and justice. Those prayers have been shared by thousands beyond our shores who have longed to see an Ireland at peace with itself.
Now as 1999 fades into history we have become a people who dare to hope.
Through great courage by political representatives of different traditions, the support of two governments and the overwhelming desire of the Irish people, what can only be described as a breakthrough has taken place.
For that, Christians of all denominations can unite in heartfelt thanks to Almighty God.
Let no one doubt, however, that political progress is only a part of the peace process. Political structures can produce the parameters in which society can move forward, but without the will and desire on the part of ordinary people at ground level there are serious limits to what politicians alone can achieve.
The real achievement is when political progress is reflected in the hearts and minds of people. Reconciliation cannot be enforced. Legislation alone cannot produce under standing and co-operation. The real struggle lies in the reaction of the will of people.
There is a moral imperative on Christians of all denominations to seek out ways of building bridges across which future generations can walk in trust, confidence and new understanding.
Behind the smokescreen of the years of violence so much that is good and worthwhile has been achieved and achieved by people of vision and courage who have been prepared to take steps of faith. Few of such steps have received publicity but they have resulted in small but definite bridges of hope.
In my ministry I have been privileged to witness many of those ef forts and to see the confidence that words of sympathy, friendship and shared hope have brought to people of all traditions. Those efforts must take fresh heart and find a new impetus in the year ahead.
Much remains to be done - we have not yet reached the promised land we so much desire, but few will doubt this new year that we have turned a corner of immense significance.
Few beyond Northern Ireland can fully appreciate the depth of feelings of hurt, frustration and indeed anger to be found in the lives of those who cannot yet come to terms with the speed of recent change. Let none doubt those people do exist in this society.
Memories of the darkest moments of the past have left their mark on too many lives. We must recognise this fact in the midst of our hopes for the future.
Somehow they too must be a part of the move forward and they must be allowed ways of feeling included in the Ireland of the new millennium - and in the future of hope we so much want.
As a churchman I am deeply conscious of the role the Irish churches have played, or failed to play, in bringing Ireland to this historic moment in our history. We have provided pastoral ministry to people in trauma which is the envy of the Christian world.
But somehow it is one thing to provide that ministry of support and comfort to people when the distinctions of right and wrong are clear in periods of suffering and terrorism.
When a peace process makes special demands on what reconciliation means in actual terms those clearer lines of definition or distinction can become blurred.
That is now the real challenge to the Irish church. Can we change from emergency pastoral support of a people in their physical suffering to a church which has the courage and the vision to be the courageous, prophetic voice of healing?
Can we enunciate clearly the demands the speed of change makes on people? What is the Gospel of forgiveness we must proclaim? Have we the courage to spell out that dimension of Christian understanding which will allow the pulpit and the sanctuary to not just reflect the genuine fears of people but spell out the actual cost of reconciliation?
In many ways the challenge to the Irish church in these days of the peace process is much greater than that posed by the trauma of 30 years of community suffering. The transition will make many demands of far-reaching implication for all the churches of Ireland in the new year.
The degree to which they can measure up to those demands may well determine the relevance of all our denominations for generations to come.
Have the churches the will and the determination to eradicate once and for all any sectarian attitude or practice which exists in their structures? Have the churches the faith in the Gospel they preach to seize the opportunities which now exist to witness more often together to the Gospel of peace?
Have we now at last reached the point where we are as anxious to talk about justice for others as well as ourselves? Can we at last move Christian witness beyond tribal identification? - just some of the questions the church of Jesus Christ must struggle with in 2000.
In Ireland this new year, may God grant us all a fresh view of what we can achieve together to make this island the real home of decency, compassion, understanding and forgiveness to which we have paid such lip-service in the past. We can dare to hope . . .