Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Irish Catholic Primate, deserves great credit for his recent courageous message criticising nationalist and republican politicians for failing to engage with the commemoration of the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021.
Writing about the centenary in the Irish Catholic newspaper he stated: "For unionists and indeed loyalist communities in Northern Ireland it represents for them a significant moment in the establishment of the Northern Ireland state.
"I would like to see the 2021 centenary as an opportunity for greater mutual understanding, for opportunities to build further reconciliation and peace".
He added: "I am somewhat disappointed that many of our nationalist and republican political leaders have dismissed the centenary of 2021 altogether because for me I think it's really important to seize it as a moment to reflect on where we've come from."
While clearly identifying himself as a nationalist, he went on to state: "If we could accept that people on this island approach their belonging from very different perspectives - that was the key to the Good Friday Agreement; that we would recognise legitimate aspirations on the island, and that to me is something that we're better not to run away from, but to face."
In my opinion Archbishop Martin's statement is one of the most important I have read from any Irish Church leader in the two decades during which I have reported for this newspaper on religious matters.
The late Cardinal Cahal Daly was a most charming man who worked tirelessly with the former Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Robin Eames to build bridges during their shared times of office. However he was infinitely layered, and almost Jesuitical, in his public statements, apart from those in which he relentlessly criticized the Provisional IRA.
Cardinal Sean Brady is also a most charming man who was starting to make significant speeches about the moral perils of the Celtic Tiger until he was overtaken by events which were partly beyond his control.
He had a warm regard for the Protestant community, and I once told him personally that he often wrote and spoke like a Protestant evangelical from east Belfast - a point which amused him greatly.
However he was not in office long enough to take a significant position on constitutional matters of the kind which Archbishop Martin has just made.
He too is a charming, warm-hearted man with a sense of humour, as I discovered in an in-depth interview with him for this newspaper some time ago. His criticism of national and republican political leaders was tactfully worded.
The days when a Catholic leader can criticize people publicly with "a belt of the crozier" have gone, but there is no mistaking his clear disappointment with his fellow nationalists, and republicans; and when a Primate speaks in this way about politicians he is also sending a message to the faithful Catholics in (and often out of) the pew.
There is no doubt that the unionists made mistake after mistake since the establishment of Northern Ireland.
There was indefensible gerrymandering, and discrimination in housing and employment, and the current DUP has totally lost its way since the politically astute Peter Robinson resigned some years ago and sought refuge -though not entirely - in his retirement.
However the sectarianism was not only one-sided.
I recall as a young boy in nationalist Newry fearfully watching local people hurling chairs onto the stage of the Town Hall when the National Anthem was being played at the end of a concert staged by the-then forerunner of the Arts Council.
Of course it is difficult for nationalists and republicans to swallow hard and overlook the past, but as Archbishop Martin has pointed out: "If there is ever to be greater mutual understanding and living together on the island of Ireland, then we need to be able to face difficult moments and difficult episodes from our history and we need to be able to face this openly." As a practicing Protestant (and a proud holder of British and Irish passports) I too am very disappointed by the current attitude of the SDLP, for which I have great respect. I wonder if John Hume would have taken the same line in his heyday.
Sadly, I am not surprised by the reaction of Sinn Fein which stated: "The centenary of partition is nothing to celebrate for Irish republicans, nationalists and democrats. Partition has been to the detriment of citizens across this island, and continues to restrict our social and economic potential."
Unfortunately, the leadership of Sinn Fein knows no better and it will take decades for the party to begin to understand the true meaning and challenges of democracy. Meanwhile it is important to acknowledge the importance of Archbishop Martin's solo run in speaking out to his flock in the North, and also being aware that his words will be read carefully by policy-makers and very many others in the Republic.
We sometimes forget that not only the Catholic Church but also the Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland congregations belong to all-island Churches.
The current Moderator the Rt Reverend David Bruce has spent a significant part of his career working with churches and organisations in the Republic, and the Methodist President-elect the Reverend Dr Sahr Yambasu, originally from Sierra Leone, is based in the Irish Republic where he has served widely in different parishes.
Perhaps it is time for the Irish Churches, north and south, to engage further in this important debate about the long-term peaceful relationships among people within and across both jurisdictions.
In the past the Churches were accused, not entirely unfairly, of being part of the problem, but 2021 provides a further opportunity to prove that they can be part of the solution. What better challenge for the Churches than to promote honest engagement, understanding and hope for the future...
Alf McCreary is Religious Correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph