A Reader writes
Dear Bishop Pat,
Further to our exchange of WhatsApp messages, I write outlining a sequence of events that took place during my recent visit to Rome because you wish to utilise the correspondence for a blog posting. As a consequence, I am going to be careful, because we are dealing with very sensitive matters. I am mindful of the on-going sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland and the extreme sensitivities surrounding the situation in Iran at the moment.
Following a concelebrated Sunday Eucharist in a church near the Vatican, a number of the priests and pilgrims along with myself had breakfast. Midway through, we were engaged in conversation by a young woman of Middle Eastern appearance. I noted that she wore a crucifix so I presumed she was a Christian. However, as the conversation developed, it transpired that she was from Iran and that she was a Muslim. When we learned this fact all of us were surprised because the wearing of the crucifix by Muslim is akin to apostasy. And as the conversation developed, I was not surprised to learn that the woman in question had cut her hair in an act of solidarity with the protesters in Iran. As the conversation unfolded, I felt sufficiently comfortable to ask about her wearing of the crucifix. She replied that she saw Jesus as a figure of liberation, so for her, the cross did not have any salvific/theological significance, however, wearing it was a profound political statement. We have this opinion of Iran being a deeply religious country, but it seemed to me that secularisation is well-developed, and the younger generation are rejecting the faith/religiosity of their parents.
Some minutes later, the woman in question asked about our countries of origin. When I replied that I was from Ireland, she immediately steered the conversation to Bobby Sands. To my absolute amazement, she told me that Bobby Sands has become a significant almost totemic figure in the political protests currently taking place in Iran. He is seen as somebody who took a principled and ideological stand for the greater good of his community at a terrible personal cost. His willingness to sacrifice his life in the pursuance of the cause of Irish freedom has real resonance with the young people of Iran who are seeking greater liberty in that country. I have been struck by many of the interviews with young people from Iran that have been broadcast on the BBC that they are willing to die to achieve greater personal freedoms. Also, they make no reference to invoking the divine when they make these kinds of statements. And for that reason I can instinctively understand why Bobby Sands has gained such traction in that country, but I appreciate this is possibly pure supposition on my part.
It is, however, the case that Bobby Sands is not an unknown figure in Iran. There is a street dedicated to his memory in the capital, Tehran, where ironically the British Embassy is located. Also, his memory was invoked by the Iranian regime to serve its own political ends, so he is not a remote figure. On the island of Ireland, Bobby Sands is a deeply divisive figure. To some, he is a convicted criminal and a terrorist; to others, he is a martyr for the cause of Irish freedom and unity whose heroic sacrifice will be perennially recorded in the annuals of Irish history. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how his contested legacy has been transformed to become a positive and inspirational force for good by a younger generation of Iranians. That, too, is a paradox of our age.
Bishop Pat, I am, however, mindful that you have a personal interest in Bobby Sands, because you were one of the priests who ministered to him in prison. Of course, I would never ask you about your relationship with Sands, because I presume you heard his confession. Also, I am sure you also tried to persuade him to end his hunger strike. But I did some research on Google this morning and I was surprised to see an interview with you talking about Sands referring to his hunger strike having a salvific/Christ-like quality. Therefore, I am of the view that you should contact a professional historian to give a detailed account of your interactions with him because we are dealing with a significant and important figure and period in Irish history that should be recorded for posterity. You too, are not going to live forever!
My conversation with the young woman in Rome was all too brief. Rightly or wrongly, I took the inference that Bobby Sands is an important and inspirational figure for young Iranians as they struggle for greater freedom in Iran. I, too, also took the inference that Sands in Iran is a secular Gandhi-like figure devoid of any theological significance.
Enclosing link to your interview below
With best wishes,
INTERVIEW – TOTONTO
Thank you for interesting correspondence.
I have never forgotten my encounters with Bobby Sands and his NINE companions.
One Sunday I said Mass in the prison and a prison officer asked me to take Holy Communion to a prisoner in the hospital wing.
It turned out to be Bobby Sands who had the strongest of possible Catholic faith.
After giving him Communion I asked if we could talk.
He replied: “As long as you’re not going to preach at me”.
I reassured him that preaching at people was not my style.
We had a very long conversation and after that I went in to say Mass for the ten of them every Sunday.
I did celebrate the Sacrament of Penance with them and of course I cannot discuss that.
But I am totally convinced that Bobby Sands was morally of a very clear conscience.
He said to me:
“Two seconds after I die I will open my eyes and will be looking into the eyes of the only man who will ever completely understand me”.
I do NOT believe that the Hunger Strikers deaths were suicide.
And Bobbs Sands in particular absolutely believed in the words of Christ:
“No man can have any greater love than to lay his life down for his friends”.
Having used every other means at his disposal to defeat what he saw as his nation’s conquerors and torturers, he was left with only one last weapon – his life.
I did not share all Bobby’s political beliefs but I admired his naked courage.
Afterwards I attended the Hunger Strikers funerals and suffered serious opposition and persecution from my fellow clergy for doing so.
The Northern clergy, with a few exceptions like Des Wilson and Joe McVeigh, were very anti Republican- SDLP supporters.
I was not particularly Republican but was acting totally out of compassion and care for my people.
Where the people are, the priest should be standing with them in solidarity.