“Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.”


image of Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen bomb 1987 from bbc.co.uk
Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen bomb 1987

What exactly is a ‘Spirit’?

I remember once hearing a child of 11 being asked that question. It was a Holy Communion catechism class and she was meant to give the answer that the class had been told the previous week. The only problem was that she had not been there the previous week, so she had to make it up. She said: “The spirit is the bit of you that lives on after all is rest is dead and gone.”
I thought that was pretty good on the spur of the moment.

As you may be able to tell from my accent, (or not if you're reading this on our blog Ignatian Insight!) I am originally from Northern Ireland. And over the last 20-odd years, my work has taken me to many different countries all over the world. And in all of those countries, all over the world, the one thing which EVERYONE knows about Northern Ireland is that for the last 40-odd years, there has been a war in Northern Ireland between two groups of people who are divided along ethnic, social, cultural and – let’s face it -  to some extent religious lines.

So it has been my joy to be able to tell all of those people that, over the last ten years or so, things have gradually been getting better. There is less violence, less loss of life, less injury, less suffering. Peace is coming to places where people did not expect to see it in their lifetimes. And the greatest joy is to be able to tell them why. Because the Holy Spirit of God is at work. There is a peace process which, very slowly and very tentatively – two steps forward and one back – really is gradually bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

They say that life can only be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards. It is only by looking back on where we have been and on what we have done, that we can understand why we are where we are now.

One thing that many of the political analysts have noticed is that, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to look back and see clearly that there was one really critical moment in the recent history of Northern Ireland when everything changed  and the level of violence started finally to decline. That moment happened on the 8th November 1987 when a bomb exploded at a Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen - a small town of about 10,000 people. Eleven people were killed and many more were injured. Among those who were killed was a young woman called Marie Wilson.

That evening there was played on the news an interview with her father Gordon Wilson who was a shopkeeper and Methodist minister in the town who had also been injured in the bomb. The interview had been recorded about an hour after the bomb exploded and just a few minutes after he had been told of his daughter’s death. With typical tact and sensitivity, the BBC journalist asked her father what he felt about the people who had just killed his daughter. I really cannot imagine what words went through the man’s mind, but without a moment’s hesitation, he described his last conversation with his dying daughter as they both lay buried in the rubble. These were his words. {I have them memorised, but I have written them out to make sure that I get them exact}:

“She held my hand tightly and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’
Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say.
But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.
Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life.
She was great wee lassie.
She loved her profession.
She was a pet.
She’s dead.
She’s in heaven and we shall meet again.
I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”


It was a moment which touched the nation. He only spoke softly but his words echoed around the country. There was something in his voice which told you that he meant it just like he said it. What many people admired the most was the use of the words “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.” As if there was no real alternative. As if turning the other cheek was the only possible response to hatred and violence.

Since that moment the momentum towards peace in Northern Ireland has been unstoppable. With the benefit of nearly twenty years of hindsight, we can now see that one moment of faith and forgiveness has been a turnaround moment which has changed the history of my entire country. After Marie Wilson is dead and gone, her spirit has lived on, not only in the next world, but in this because of her father’s incredible capacity for forgiveness.

That, I believe, is the Spirit of Pentecost, which Jesus sent upon his disciples and upon the World, approximately one thousand nine hundred and eighty something years ago - TODAY.
“Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are – they really are - Forgiven.”

Paul O'Reilly SJ