What happens when a Presbyterian minister and a Roman Catholic priest have a coffee together and think about an idea for the week of prayer for Christian unity in Belfast? I don’t think either foresaw how explosive that coffee and chat 10 years ago would be. Irene Jovaras reports on this year’s 4 Corners Festival.

[New City Magazine – April 2022 page 4-7]

Both Fr Martin Magill (RC) and Rev Steve Stockman (Presbyterian) have a passion for living out the gospel mandate ‘That all may be one’. Realising how little they knew about each other’s corners of the city they had a dream to bring the four corners of Belfast together. This dream became the 4 Corners Festival which this year celebrated its 10th year.
Belfast is a city of many festivals – music, art, science and political themes. The originality of this festival was to use the worlds of art, science, film, storytelling, plays, walking, prayer and church life, and even knitting, to bring people together in different parts of the city to build relationships and friendships and to widen our horizons. Those insightful encounters have been some of the most enjoyable, educational highlights of my years here in Belfast. Conversations are initiated, addresses exchanged and friendships across boundaries are developed.
This year the theme was Common Ground, Common Good. For their 10th anniversary the dream was to invite Pope Francis to Belfast to speak in the Church of Ireland cathedral and Archbishop Justin Welby to speak in the Catholic cathedral. The Pope could not manage but sent a beautiful opening video message, thanks to Austen Ivereigh, who had been invited to the opening event to speak about his book Let us Dream which is based on interviews and tapes Pope Francis sent to him.
Austen had been with the Pope a few weeks previously and told him about this remarkable initiative at which he was going to speak, and the Pope was delighted to express his thanks to the two clergymen for their example. So, using Austen’s mobile, a message was recorded to use for the launch of this year’s festival in St Anne’s cathedral.
The Dean of the Anglican cathedral Rev Steven Forde reminded us that the day coincided with the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This was a historic event opening with a message from the Pope and ending with an address from the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Catholic cathedral.

Message from Pope Francis

In his greeting Pope Francis expresses his gratitude for walking together and opening horizons:

‘To the extent that we open more horizons, the more the grace of God enters us, the more the Lord is revealed to us. The danger is when we close ourselves off, each one of us, at a personal level, when we close in our own story. We do not grow.
Or when, as a society, we enclose ourselves in our religion, in our ideas, and live closed-up, each one in our corner… If we have walked together for centuries, why stop and mutually excommunicate each other?
Instead, the 4 Corners unites and puts on a Festival. Why is it called a Festival? Because it is fiesta! What the Lord Jesus taught us is that in a fiesta the greatness of his heart shows forth. I especially want to thank you for the good your example does me. It does me good because I see we must pull down walls and build bridges.’

The evening continued with a powerful witness from European evangelical youth leader Jasper Rutherford, European Director of Christ in Youth, who shared a powerful witness of going against the current during the time of his youth in Belfast throughout the troubles. Then there was the compelling input from Austen Ivereigh as he described his relationship with Pope Francis and the journey of the production of Dare to Dream. This was interspersed with music and ended with a lively question and answer session.

Breaking down barriers

This year’s programme included a variety of experiences bringing people together with events in churches and other venues throughout Belfast. These included: extracts from Sam Thompson’s play Over the Bridge; workshops for youth workers and Christian leaders on the power of non-violence plus an interview with Susan McKay about her book On Shifting Ground. Carl Frampton MBE, two-weight boxing World Champion fascinated listeners as he shared his life journey with local journalist Mark Sidebottom.
A Game of Three Halves brought together young people for a lively evening of sporting activities, GAA, soccer and rugby with the Peace Players. Another evening involved peace worker Sue Divin, author of Guard Your Heart, with young adults.
An evening with Ruth McGinley, a Derry girl and former BBC’s young musician of the year (1994) took place at the Royal Opera house. This evening was a treat of Ruth’s amazing accomplishments as Steve Stockman enabled her to intimately share her story and insight into her struggle through dark moments and the rediscovery of her talent. The evening gave us diverse pieces: Sibelius and Phillip Glass, to an electronic fusion of sounds and piano from her recent album Re-Connections which traces her life story. ‘A sharing of my inward journey back to my true self.’ The interview brought us through her joys and struggles, therapy, recovery from addiction, and how these tough moments can be opportunities to rebuild oneself.

Knitting 4 corners

Fitzroy Presbyterian church saw a gathering of about forty keen knitters gathered from all of Belfast’s corners to enthusiastically share patterns, stitches, projects, and various ideas for activities such as the ‘climate scarf project’ to pencil cases for Africa.

Jim Deeds

Many readers will know the name of Jim Deeds through his poetry published regularly in New City. I asked him, as one of the organisers and leaders of the virtual night prayers, to share his experience of the festival this year.

‘One of the lessons that came out of holding the 2021 4 Corners Festival online was the value of holding night prayer each night of the festival. And so, this year, night prayer was retained, but with a creative twist.
An artist was commissioned to create a piece of art, inspired by the theme of the festival – Common Ground, Common Good – and invited to bring that piece of art to night prayer for the people to view and contemplate.
Michaela and I, as prayer leaders, interviewed the artists each night, drawing out their inspirations and intentions, before leading the people in prayer that weaved together the art piece with song, scripture and contemplation.
With an online audience or congregation of over forty people each night, the night prayer was a real success. It drew people from all over Belfast, indeed, the world. They also came from many different denominations and faith traditions. Overall, it was a genuine experience of unity in diversity!’

Archbishop Justin Welby

The concluding Sunday Service was transmitted by Radio Ulster and led by the Methodist superintendent Rev David Campton with a sermon from Archbishop Justin Welby.
The Archbishop reminded us that reconciliation needs to take place not just between peoples but also with the planet.

‘Climate change is a conflict that will consume the whole world, if we do not reconcile now, to our neighbours and to our planet.
We are called to rediscover that sense of belonging to the whole of humanity, to reject the fallacy of atomisation, the idea that I can do what I like without affecting anyone else.
First, seek identity in gift, grace, and positivity, not in negation and enemies.
Second, embrace complexity. No conflict is simple, no peace building happens without setbacks, failures, risks, and sacrifices. It is always complicated.
Third, be patient and persistent. Peace and forgiveness are the work of decades, generations of fitful improvement. They will come, resilience matters, but there are no quick fixes.
This Festival is very much these habits in action – calling people to new places, to meet new people and hear new perspectives and to respond with presence and curiosity.’

The washing of feet

That evening in St Peter’s cathedral the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of his relationship with Pope Francis.

‘I am privileged to call him a friend and a brother, and it is an extraordinary privilege to be here. One of the things we share in the meetings we have had is a passion for peacebuilding, for all kinds of reasons. I mean by peacebuilding or reconciliation – and I know that can be quite a dodgy word – enabling people to disagree well. Not to agree, but to disagree, but to disagree well. To relish, to feast on the vast and beautiful diversity of our humanity while loving one another and living in peace.’

He shared a moving experience about the retreat he and Pope Francis gave in Rome to leaders of warring factions in South Sudan back in 2019. At the conclusion, the Pope bent down to kiss the feet of these leaders begging them to make peace.

‘It was a washing of feet… tears were running down every face there, including the BBC cameraman… I won’t say the war ended, but it was the turning point. And God willing, sometime in the next few months, perhaps this year, we will see them in Juba and see what progress can be made.’

The evening was enhanced by the powerful accompaniment of Jazz singer Dana Masters with sounds surely never before heard in St Peter’s cathedral!

Looking back

Over these 10 years we have experienced the hope of politicians, mayors from different parties, engaging in open, frank dialogue in Stormont, churches and civic halls and other public venues.
Musicians and artists have been interviewed sharing their deeper selves, highs and lows and the inspiration behind their work and giving us some awe-inspiring unforgettable performances.
City hall and generous sponsors have hosted meals for refugees, migrants, the homeless, and others as a gesture of going out to the margins of our city.
The event has had ripples globally – from Australia, South America, the Philippines and can be seen as a model for developing a culture of dialogue and encounter that so many long for. Personally, I have found that the exchange of contact details during the events have developed long lasting friendships and partnerships, opportunities to network for the common good not just across the city but even from parallel streets. This year on my way to the Opera House to listen to Ruth McGinley, I found myself in conversation with a couple of train passengers who lived in the street next to mine one of whom was receiving piano lessons from Ruth. We discovered we were going to the same place. We exchanged addresses and after a few days they delivered a box of clothes for me to distribute to others via a project they knew I was involved in.

Where next?

I asked Fr Magill what were his feelings at the end of this year’s festival and hopes for the future.

‘I came away from the 10th anniversary of 4 Corners Festival with a deep sense of gratitude to God not only for the eight days of the 2022 festival but also for the journey of the previous years. When Steve and I first thought of the idea of a festival we had no idea how it would grow and develop in the way it did. From a personal point of view, I attended almost everything, leaving me with a huge amount of ideas to process and pray with as I discern next steps. As a committee we are already thinking about the theme for next year’s festival, as we pray about what would help heal some of the suffering from Belfast’s wounded past and share a message of hope to the wider world from our wonderful city.’

See also: www.4cornersfestival.org via YouTube

Photos© by Bernie Brown

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