By Shane Paul O’Doherty
I was invited to share a portion of my story in the recently-released documentary, John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace, a historically-rooted film narrated by Jim Caviezel exploring the seeds of peace sowed by the late saint in my native country during his landmark 1979 visit. Participating in this project crystalized my belief, after all these years, that words spoken by JPII helped to change the course of the history of a nation and, as in my case, the lives of many of its citizens, by penetrating deeply into hearts.
I was in prison for IRA London bombings for four years before Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland, September 1979, and for ten more years after his visit.
Between 1976 and 1978 and during a period of fourteen months of solitary confinement, I had undergone a most unexpected conversion back to my Catholic faith and had explored the meaning of repentance for a teenager who had planted time bombs and sent letter bombs and had injured many people.
Struck by Mt 5:23-24, I had decided to write letters of apology to my victims but both the prison authorities and the Government initially denied permission for my apologies; there was no such thing as a repentant terrorist or conversions for terrorist sinners. It was all a ruse, they said, to get out of prison early.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. – Matthew 5:23-24
After a year-long battle, I got permission to apologize to my victims and I also penned a letter to the press in Ireland calling on the IRA to end its immoral and unnecessary armed struggle but, for all that, no one believed in my change of heart. I was, they said, a con artist.
Within a year of these momentous changes in my life, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Ireland. There, the world-famous spiritual leader who had struggled against totalitarian communism in his native Poland, joined Ireland’s struggle against murderous paramilitary violence and called on terrorists to lay down their guns and bombs.
Pope John Paul II called on Catholics, Christians and people of goodwill to work for peace and justice. But he also highlighted the need for interior conversion of heart and for people to struggle to follow Jesus Christ in their daily lives. The Gospel values, however unpopular at different times, were the sure signposts to salvation.
After the pope’s momentous visit and the sight of more than 2.5 million Irish people converging to hear his words, I noticed from my London prison cell a dramatic change both in how my own recent conversion began to be viewed but also in how Irish people began to be treated in England.
Suddenly, the language of repentance and conversion had new currency. Suddenly, it did not seem ridiculous to hope for the deep and sincere conversion of sinners. Suddenly, in the south east of England and in the great capital of London, Catholicism and religious faith were no longer ridiculed.
In only a few days, Pope John Paul II had woven into everyday parlance the power of Christ’s Gospel to change the world and had created a mindset in which my own dramatic conversion could now seem plausible.
A whole raft of people – those brave members of the House of Commons and House of Lords who visited me in prison, alongside prominent lawyers and churchmen including Cardinal Basil Hume – supported me for many years thereafter.
Bishop Edward Daly of Derry, made famous on Bloody Sunday when he was filmed waving a white handkerchief while facing gunfire from British Army paratroopers, visited me and gave me the medallion Pope John Paul had personally given to him as a memento of his visit.
Thus, my own conversion was forever united to the pope’s call for paramilitaries to lay down their arms, to repent and to be converted. I lived to see the many changes begun by the pope’s historic visit to Ireland.
As Ireland witnesses its second papal visit, I have great hope that the course of history can again be changed by ushering in the renewal of faith in Ireland. For many, especially younger generations, this process can get a helpful boost by watching Naglieri’s documentary film and seeing how substantial change can happen, even in the most complicated contexts, over time.
John Paul II in Ireland: A Plea for Peace, is airing across the country on local public television networks and is available for sale online. Buy a copy or learn more at jp2inireland.com