In the community I serve as pastor, Corpus Christi Parish in west Belfast, the summer months of July and August mark the anniversaries of two profoundly traumatic events, 46 and 45 years ago respectively, that continue to cause pain, in 2017.
On August 9, 1971, Fr Hugh Mullan was shot and killed as he ministered to wounded and dying parishioners. That same day, Frank Quinn, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Danny Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Eddie Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr, Paddy McCarthy and John McKerr were also shot dead. Eleven months later, on July 7, 1972, Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, also a curate in Corpus Christi, was killed in the exact same circumstances. Three teenage parishioners - Margaret Gargan (13), John Dougal (16) and David McCafferty (15), along with 39-year-old Paddy Butler - died with him.
The Parish of Corpus Christi comprises the main areas of Ballymurphy, New Barnsley, Springhill and Moyard. The parish is unique, in the north of Ireland's history of violence, in that two of its priests, within 11 months of each other, were killed in the exercise of their priestly ministries.
During the darkest of days, Fr Mullan and Fr Fitzpatrick were faithful to their priesthood and to God's people. Without hesitation, they went into the midst of the gravest danger, to bring Christ in his sacraments, to dying men, women and children; to whisper into their parishioners' ears the Gospel words of comfort and hope, as their lives ebbed away on streets close to their own front doors.
The men and women, boys and the young girl killed, in what have become known as the Ballymurphy and Springhill massacres, were innocent people shot dead by the British Army. The trauma and suffering of their families, for close to 50 years now, has been deepened and exacerbated by refusals to acknowledge the grave wrong, perpetrated against innocent civilians and an entire community, in the summer months of 1971 and 1972.
The early 1970s were years of atrocious suffering for everyone in Northern Ireland. Hundreds of people lost their lives - soldiers, police, civilians and paramilitaries. Thousands of people were plunged into grief. There still exists an ocean of deep sorrow in the hearts of the surviving relatives of those murdered and slain, during those terror-filled days.
To this day, the relatives of the victims of the Ballymurphy and Springhill massacres seek justice for their murdered relatives. Added to their demands for vindication, are the appeals, also, of the families of those innocents murdered at Kingsmill (January 1976) and Teebane (January 17, 1992), for honest admittance of the sheer magnitude of the unjustifiable evil that was visited upon them, in those and so many other atrocities.
The God who is loved and worshipped by Christians, Catholic and Protestant, in the north of Ireland, is the God of justice, who hears the victims' cries and who champions their cause against the cruel and violent. This is the true God whom Fr Mullan and Fr Fitzpatrick served and preached, along with countless other Catholic priests and Protestant ministers, during the Troubles.
The self-sacrifice of two priests during the worst violence of the Troubles is worthy of note. Their fidelity is a light in the darkness of those times and their courageous witness is worthy of remembrance as our entire community continues to seek healing of the deep wounds that still cause pain in many hearts today.