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Fr Martin Magill: 'I didn't think I was afraid to die until I experienced two life-threatening health issues which confronted me with my own mortality'

In conversation with Fr Martin Magill

Staying busy: Fr Martin Magill
Staying busy: Fr Martin Magill
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Fr Martin Magill (58) is the parish priest of St John the Evangelist on Belfast’s Falls Road. His searing sermon at the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee in St Anne’s Cathedral is credited with galvanising Northern Ireland politicians and the British and Irish Governments into re-starting the Stormont talks.

Q. Can you tell us about your background?

A.  I was born on September 13, 1961, and grew up in Aldergrove. My father, John, was a farmer and my mother, Brigid, looked after the home and was very involved with the local parish. My dad was very good at letting go of his anger and didn’t hold it when he had expressed it. My mother was very focused and determined. She had the ability to get things done. Both my parents are deceased. I have a younger brother, Oliver, and a younger sister, Anne. I have two nieces and a nephew.

Q. What about your early and later education?

A. I went to St James’ Primary School at Aldergrove, and later to St Malachy’s College in Belfast. My tertiary education took place at Queen’s University, the Gregorian University and Angelicum universities in Rome, St Mary’s University College in Belfast and the Northern Regional College. I am presently parish priest at St John’s, and loving it.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. As a child at school I was taught a lot about God. My teacher had a great love of the Bible, and regularly read stories to my class. Along with the weekly experience of going to Mass, being taught and encouraged to pray at home, this all came to me in an experience of God. By that I mean, it felt I had moved beyond remembering and recalling different things I had heard about God in my head, to realising in my heart that God was real.

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It felt like I had come to know and experience God directly.

Looking back on it, I would use the words of John Wesley to describe that experience: “My heart was strangely warmed.”

My faith is at the core of my being. It defines who I am and is relevant every day in my life.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?

A. I’ve had a season of what the mystic St John of the Cross describes as “a dark night of the soul” where I have experienced the “divine absence”. I had no sense of God during that time and felt lost in life.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God, and why?

A. No. I often ask why such human suffering and evil is allowed to happen in the world. I talk about how I “wrestle with God” in my questioning.

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that criticism?

A. Yes — and yes!

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?

A. Yes. I have been and continue to be appalled and outraged by the abuse of children and young people by clerical, religious and lay leaders of the Catholic Church. I am sick and tired of all the apologising and I want to see reparation and restoration.

Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?

A. I didn’t think I was afraid to die until I experienced two life-threatening health issues which confronted me with my mortality. I had two episodes of deep vein thrombosis — in the first case it was particularly acute during a long-haul flight from China where I had been on holiday. One of the doctors in the hospital told me I had been very lucky, that I could have had a stroke or it could have been fatal. That was sobering. At the moment, I am not afraid to die.

Q. Are you worried about hell-fire?

A. No.

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection and if so, what will it be like?

A. I most certainly do. As a professing Catholic Christian who prays one of the creeds at least once a week, I believe in the resurrection of the body. The words of Jesus in John 10:10 come to mind when he said: “I come that they may have life to the full.”

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A. I am a great believer in learning from the faith experience of other people. When I am free to do so, I worship on Sunday evening in another denomination and I have been doing this for several years. I have worshipped in most denominations at this point and have found it very rewarding and spiritually enriching.

I have taken part in inter-faith dialogue and have taken part and will continue to take part in inter-faith events. I am interested in learning more about Islam.

A recent opportunity to meet and co-operate with an imam in England has presented itself and I am looking forward to working with him. I am grounded in my Catholic Christian faith thanks to my home, school and parish and, as a consequence, I am very comfortable in trying to learn from other people.

Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. I am reminded of words from some of my school reports — “Could do better”. For me, owing to where we are in coming out of destructive decades of violence, I am disappointed that the Churches together have not been more united in helping to build the peace here. I acknowledge the work of the Irish Council of Churches and the various ecumenical fellowships. A number of years ago the Churches secured funding and set up the Irish Churches Peace Project. This was doing valuable work in supporting relationships among people in local churches. Sadly the project, and the funding, ended.

I’d like to see those in leadership in the Churches re-visit this with a view to starting something similar again.

Q. Why are people turning their back on religion?

A. There are all sorts of reasons for this — some people dismiss Christian beliefs as nonsense or fairy tales. Many have busy lives and don’t find time for church on a Saturday evening or Sunday. There is also a belief that the Church is not relevant to modern life. I should add that there are some parishes within the larger denominations which are growing — for example, Willowfield Parish in east Belfast and Carnmoney Presbyterian.

Within my own diocese “Living Youth” has increasing numbers of young people doing the alpha course and becoming involved in their parishes.

I am encouraged at St John’s to see an increase in the number of young people who are becoming involved in the parish.

Q. Has religion helped or hindered people here?

A. Both. Religion going back to the origin of the word is about bringing people together. Worshipping with fellow-believers can be a unifying experience. Sadly, owing to what is called “toxic theology” it has at times been detrimental.

Q. What was your immediate reaction to the sustained applause during your speech in St Anne’s Cathedral at Lyra McKee’s funeral, and how did you keep going?

A. I was completely surprised, as it happened in the middle of a sentence. I’ve been asked if I noticed the politicians’ reactions. In fact I didn’t. I spent the time looking at my text and wondering what to do next — do I start the sentence again or continue where I left off?

Q. Do you still think about Lyra?

A. Yes, regularly. There are few days go by when someone doesn’t mention Lyra’s funeral.

Q. You’ve been described as a campaigner. Do you agree? 

A. Yes. I am a member of a committee which wants to see the setting up of a therapeutic residential centre for young people suffering from addiction.

I am a member of the Stop Attacks Forum which campaigns to end paramilitary-style assaults, shootings and beatings which have been happening for 50 years. We’ll only be content when they finally stop. That day can’t come quickly enough.

Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?

A. My favourite film is Good Will Hunting. After the Bible, my favourite book is Tattoos On The Heart by Fr Greg Boyle. The piece of music I like best is J S Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze.

Q. The place where you feel closest to God?

A. This varies. I feel closest to God during my “quiet time”. I spend an hour each day in prayer, and this brings me a sense of closeness to God.

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. I wish I’d listened more carefully to some of the wise people in my life.

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