DUBLIN, Ireland – An English Jesuit who left his order to become a diocesan priest in Northern Ireland has been honored by England’s Queen Elizabeth II for his services to a community wrought by sectarian violence.
Father Paul Symonds, a priest of the Belfast-based Diocese of Down and Connor, has served for four years in Ballymena, a predominantly Protestant town known for anti-Catholic sectarianism. Father Symonds is especially known for his work with Catholics and Protestants in Ballymena’s Harryville section, where Catholics have been subjected to sustained campaigns of intimidation. As recently as the summer of 2005, Masses at Our Lady the Mother of Christ Church in Harryville were canceled because of such intimidation.
As a result of his ecumenical ministry in Ballymena, Father Symonds has been included in the 2008 list as an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a chivalric order established in 1917 by King George V to recognize exceptional achievement or service. The order has civil and military divisions and, as an officer of the civil division, Father Symonds is entitled to include the initials “OBE” after his surname.
As well as enjoying good relations with the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Methodist and Presbyterian ministers in Ballymena, Father Symonds has worked closely with Protestants found guilty of sectarian attacks.
The 69-year-old priest, who was born in London and raised near Windsor, the queen’s summer residence, told CNS: “I was thrilled when I was asked would I like to accept an honor – I could not believe it.
“Everything that I have done and achieved, I have done because I believe it is what God wanted me to do and that he led me here. If you had told me when I was being ordained that I would be working with former loyalist prisoners, I would have thought that I would have been disastrous,” he said.
Father Symonds was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1976 and spent six years working at the Jesuits’ European office before he was given the job of organizing the translation facilities for the 1987 Synod of Bishops in Rome.
“It was during this time that the then-Bishop (Cahal) Daly, now Cardinal Daly, introduced me to a diocesan priest, Father Martin McGill, saying ‘You two should have something in common,’ because of our joint interest in ecumenism. Martin and I immediately clicked – we shared a common vision – and after the synod we continued to meet and pray for peace and reconciliation,” he said.
“I became convinced that God was calling me to work in Northern Ireland, but it took two years to convince everyone else – they say that the test of a true vocation is opposition and patience,” added Father Symonds.
In 1999, Father Symonds moved to Belfast and joined the Columbanus Community of Reconciliation, where three Protestants and three Catholics lived together in an interchurch community.
“While there, I helped in a variety of parishes … I also worked as an assistant chaplain in the Maze Prison – I thought the (nationalist) Republican prisoners would eat me alive, but in fact I got on very well with them,” he said.
“After three years … I realized that I didn’t want to work long-term in the justice system, and it became crystal clear to me that I should be serving as a diocesan priest,” Father Symonds said.
After serving as a curate in Drumbo and as a spiritual director at the Down and Connor diocesan seminary, St. Malachy’s College, Father Symonds was appointed to Ballymena.
Father Symonds was to be the first Catholic priest to give a sermon at Ballymena’s Methodist church for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Jan. 18-25.
“I love working here,” he said. “I’ve made great friendships, both within my own congregation and within the Protestant communities. Members of the Presbyterian Church have been particularly supportive of my ministry. I am convinced that I am doing what God has wanted me to do.”