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I'm no threat, says first Catholic canon to take up ecumenical role at Belfast CoI cathedral

Published 29/07/2016

Father O’Donnell is priest of St Brigid’s in south Belfast as well as a canon at St Anne’s Cathedral
Father O’Donnell is priest of St Brigid’s in south Belfast as well as a canon at St Anne’s Cathedral
St Anne’s Cathedral

Fr Edward O'Donnell has been appointed to serve alongside clergy at Belfast's Church of Ireland cathedral. It's move that would have left his parents bemused, he tells Ivan Little.

The priest who has just become the first Catholic ecumenical canon at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast has acknowledged that the move will be a challenge for some  Protestants and Catholics.

And Fr Edward O'Donnell, who is the parish priest of St Brigid's in south Belfast, admitted that his own parents might have struggled with the groundbreaking initiative if it had happened in their lifetime.

He said: "They were of a very different generation and I'm not sure how I could have explained to them that I was a canon in the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Belfast. They wouldn't have been negative, but they would have been puzzled."

The 65-year-old said his appointment was "bound to cause ripples on both sides" and added: "I can understand it being somewhat challenging for some people in both Churches, but I don't think I will be a threat to anyone."

The Magherafelt-born cleric said he was "stunned" when he was approached to take the post by Dean of Belfast, the Rev John Mann. "It came out of the blue when the Dean told me I had been elected by the cathedral chapter, but I know it's a significant move and I welcomed it.

"I was aware that in 2009 the Church of Ireland agreed to have ecumenical canons and two clerics from the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches were appointed, but this is a very generous step forward and in some ways a courageous one.

"The significance of the move is the real point which has to be emphasised. It will help to build up ecumenical relationships and bonds of friendship which are important, because when people get to know one another they develop a respect and can talk more freely with one another.

"But in practical terms it means I can preach occasionally in St Anne's and I will be able to attend chapter meetings and to take my place as one of the canons at important events in the life of the cathedral."

Catholic canons have already been appointed by the Church of Ireland in Armagh and Dublin but the move is a first for Belfast, where close relationships have already been forged down the years between the cathedral and a number of Catholic churches, notably St Peter's Cathedral in west Belfast.

But Fr O'Donnell's appointment takes the outreach to a whole new level in a week when the Catholic Church has been rocked by the murder of elderly priest Fr Jacques Hamel in France by Islamist extremists as he said Mass.

The Pope said that the killing and other terrorist attacks showed the world was at war because it had lost peace, but he added that it was not a war of religion.

Fr O'Donnell said: "Pope Francis pointed out that thousands of ordinary Christian men and women are losing their lives because they are Christians and we never hear about all the murders. But it is something that all of us, whatever our Church, should be conscious of."

He said he was appalled by the Normandy killing. "Fr Jacques was a harmless old man and for two young boys to go in and murder him in such a horrific way is just beyond words.

"But you also have to think of the two young lads and the way they were manipulated - they had their whole lives ahead of them." Fr O'Donnell said that his appointment at St Anne's was, in the grand scheme of things, only a small gesture, but an important one, towards unity and reconciliation. The priest, who was educated at St Malachy's College in Belfast, said he had tried to establish bonds with the growing Muslim community in south Belfast. "From time to time they ask to use our parish centre for social events and we are happy for them to do that. I have also visited the mosque in Belfast and had their tea there. And the people who carry out these appalling acts do not represent the Muslim community," he explained.

He celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination in June. One of his first roles was as chaplain at the City Hospital in Belfast at the height of the Troubles.

What he experienced there and at other hospitals in Belfast was to shape his life.

"It was a baptism of fire. It was quite awful, a rough station where in casualty you saw all kinds of terrible things. I can imagine how people in Paris and Nice felt when their loved ones were killed recently. I saw it so often," he said.

Fr O'Donnell said some of the most harrowing times as a chaplain came during IRA feuds when rival factions with the republican movement turned their guns on each other.

"I also remember very clearly going into the Royal Victoria Hospital one Sunday morning to celebrate Mass and I was called to casualty where I saw a young man of 18 who had been shot in Ardoyne and wasn't going to survive," he added.

"However, the medical teams managed to keep him alive until his parents arrived that evening. He was a Catholic, but he was also a British soldier.

"However, orange tears and green tears were the same."

He said his time as a chaplain made him realise what was important in life. He stressed that he didn't have strong political views, and he added: "If only we could convince people to live for values rather than to die for values, we would achieve much."

After 18 months as a hospital chaplain Fr O'Donnell moved to a parish in Drumbo, and was the first Catholic chaplain at Hydebank Young Offenders' Centre before becoming secretary to the late Dr Cahal Daly when he was Bishop of Down and Connor.

Fr O'Donnell said working with the bishop was a real education. "He had a profound respect for other people's points of view. He was a very good listener and he didn't jump to conclusions. He was very comfortable in his own faith and no one knew it better than him. He also introduced me to all sorts of people from all traditions."

Fr O'Donnell's next parishes were in Antrim, Newtownards and at St Anne's in Derriaghy, before going to St Brigid's six years ago.

He said that even though his parish was in one of Belfast's most affluent areas, he was only too keenly aware that people in other parts of the city "still had quite a struggle".

He went on: "But the fabric of society is breaking down and that touches us too, and it all poses a challenge for the Churches and for religion. People are so distracted with so many different things that we can appear irrelevant, apart from the very important times in their lives."

On a lighter note, Fr O'Donnell - who keeps fit by swimming - said that it was only after he accepted the cathedral's invitation to become a canon that he discovered he will also be expected to join the Dean in the Black Santa sit-out at Christmas outside St Anne's in freezing temperatures.

"Dean Mann broke that news to me after I said yes to the appointment. But I don't mind. I will do my bit..."

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