Belfast Telegraph

What the Clonard Novena faithful say about same-sex marriage and abortion in NI

Hundreds of worshippers attend the Novena at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast yesterday
Hundreds of worshippers attend the Novena at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast yesterday
Father Peter Burns speaks to the Belfast Telegraph
Harry Murphy
Marie O'Brien
Breege Farnan
Lorraine Boyle with her children Manus and Darcey
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

It's been going on for 76 years.

And it brings between 12,000 and 15,000 people from across Ireland and beyond to 10 daily services over nine days.

But some things never change for those attending the annual Clonard Novena, and one is the faithful's fervent attitude to abortion.

There was, however, a great deal of support for same-sex marriage among those who converged yesterday on the monastery for the first day of a series of 90 special Masses.

Thousands of believers will pack into the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in west Belfast in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Help during the popular event, which runs until June 27.

So, what is it exactly that draws so many visitors in person - not forgetting those from around the world who tune in on the Clonard webcam - to this yearly religious pilgrimage?

It's a question that even new Clonard rector Fr Peter Burns, who recently began his second stint in the role (having previously held the post from 2002-2008), said he still struggles to answer.

"One of the key reasons people are drawn to the novena has to do with the writing of petitions and of thanksgiving messages to Our Lady of Perpetual Help," he said.

"All human life is there. Countless thousands of each are written by those attending - even though only a tiny number can be chosen by the preachers to be read out during each service."

What is clear, given the tens of thousands of people who attend the event year in and year out, is that it's a remarkable social, cultural and religious phenomenon that commands a unique place in their hearts.

And what was particularly striking yesterday was the wide range of people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds who were there, including so many young men, women and children.

With the issues of same-sex marriage and liberalisation of Northern Ireland's abortion laws having hit the headlines recently, some of the faithful reflected on both issues yesterday.

Legal secretary Lorraine Boyle (37) from south Belfast attended the 11am Mass with daughter Darcey (3) and two-year-old son Manus.

"I've been coming here every year for 10 years," she said.

"It's a tradition. My mum used to take her mum and I started taking my mum... and now my kids.

"I enjoy the singing and music and I find the sermons are much more contemporary compared to normal Sunday Mass.

"We lost dad (Raymond Glover) at 65 and mum (Marie) at 71 to cancer and the novena really helped me get through that difficult time and I feel closer to them by coming here."

Lorraine said it was "time for a reality check and to move forward" on the issue of same-sex marriage, but she doesn't agree with bringing in abortion here.

Retired road contractor James Glass (63) from Maghera said he'd come to Clonard this year for a second time.

"It's a nice Mass and a lovely sermon. I wrote a petition asking for happiness for my wife Mary (60) and daughters Louise (35) and Claire (27)," he said.

Admitting he was in favour of same-sex marriage because "people should be allowed to be with whoever they want to", he said he was "in two minds" about any change on abortion.

Former altar boy and retired social worker Harry Murphy, who grew up "in the shadow of Clonard" but now lives in north Belfast, said: "I come every day; it's something I did when I was younger and I've carried it on."

He is one of the 300-plus volunteers who help out during the nine-day event.

On same-sex marriage, Harry said he's "not going to judge people for their morals when the Pope has an open mind", and he stressed that he's "against abortion for abortion's sake".

Marie O'Brien (64), a retired care assistant from Turf Lodge, said she began her annual pilgrimage 27 years ago when her only daughter Colleen was diagnosed with cancer. She sadly died at the age of five.

"This has helped me a lot over the years and it still helps," she said.

"I'm not well - I have vascular disease and diabetes.

"Neither is my husband Phillip (71), who is just out of hospital with heart failure, and our son Declan (35) has Down's syndrome.

"But I come every day of the nine days."

While Marie believes same-sex marriage should be allowed, she said "abortion should definitely not be brought into Northern Ireland".

Retired English and German teacher Breege Farnan (69), who lives in Belfast, said the Clonard Novena brings her "great happiness".

"I feel sad when it's over," she said.

"The singing is uplifting and one of the highlights for me is the 'ecumenical day', when ministers from other Christian Churches preach at all the sessions."

Voicing her support for same-sex marriage, Breege said she has "reservations" about the extension of the Abortion Act.

"I would hate to see anything that encourages the murdering of an unborn child," she insisted.

Summing up what the Clonard Novena means to him, west Belfast man Gerry Magee (61), a volunteer at the event for the past 40 years, said: "It's all about friendship and meeting people."

He added: "When the weather's good, this is my summer holiday!"

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