By Sarah Mac Donald - 13 December, 2016
“A tireless peacemaker and bridge-builder” who was one of the “great figures of the ecumenical movement in Ireland – a role he accomplished through gentle friendship and witness”.
The Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has been joined by Cardinal Seán Brady and the country’s bishops in paying tribute to Bishop Gerard Clifford who died on Monday in Dublin.
Bishop Clifford, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Armagh, announced his retirement in February 2013 on health grounds.
Describing him as “a devoted and generous priest and bishop who reluctantly had to resign from active ministry in 2013 due to ill health”, Archbishop Martin said “Bishop Gerry” had always been held with great affection and esteem.
He noted that over the past three years, the Co Louth-born prelate had had to endure increasing frailty and illness but had done so with characteristic courage, patience and faith.
The Primate also paid tribute to Bishop Clifford as “a tireless peacemaker and bridge-builder” who he said was one of the “great figures of the ecumenical movement in Ireland – a role he accomplished through gentle friendship and witness”.
A native of Ballymascanlon, Bishop Clifford served as a member of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for more than 20 years, having previously served as its Executive Secretary.
His episcopal ministry involved working in ecumenism, education and, as President of Cura, in the pastoral care area of crisis pregnancy.
After the 1979 pilgrimage by St John Paul II to Ireland, Bishop Clifford was part of the response by the Church in Ireland to the late Pope’s special appeal for Churches to work more closely together.
He undertook this work in partnership with the late Church of Ireland Canon William Arlow.
In 1979, the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich appointed Gerard Clifford ecumenical and reconciliation officer of Armagh, with a base in Richill, near Portadown.
Bishop Clifford regarded his ecumenical involvement as one of the most important aspects of his life as a priest. His interest in ecumenism went back to his student days – his theological degree was awarded for a study of ministry in the Anglican Church.
In his tribute, Archbishop Martin described Bishop Clifford as “a holy and humble man” who instinctively placed the concerns of others first, “as befits a true messenger of the Gospel”.
Referring to his episcopal motto in 1991, which was ‘That all may be one’, from Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper, he said that for Bishop Gerry “the unity implied is a firm ‘yes’ to the way of love and a firm ‘no’ to the way of hatred”.
“He placed great store in the innate decency of people and he used every opportunity to heal the wounds created by violence, distrust and fear.”
Dr Clifford is survived by his sister Rose and his brother Christopher.
When announcing his retirement in 2013, Bishop Clifford said, “Whilst the pastoral work and responsibilities of being bishop and priest in twenty-first century Ireland are both challenging and complex, it is nonetheless a deeply rewarding vocation for anyone called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.”
Born on 24 June 1941 into a farming family, he was the second child of the late Thomas and Margaret Clifford of Bellurgan.
He was educated at Bellurgan National School, Bush Vocational School, St Mary’s College, Dundalk, and St Patrick’s College, Armagh, and he studied for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Ordained to the priesthood on 18 June 1967, he undertook postgraduate studies both at Maynooth and at Lumen Vitae, the international catechetical centre in Brussels.
From 1969 to 1979 he was appointed Director of Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Armagh. He liaised with all the schools of the diocese and published several guides to help parents in the religious formation of their children.
As ecumenical and reconciliation officer, he organised ecumenical talks twice a year between the diocese and Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast.
He was responsible for organising the inter-church services in Armagh Cathedral during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which brought a number of prominent ecumenists from abroad to Northern Ireland.
With Canon Arlow he organised a major ecumenical pilgrimage to Iona in 1984. Also in the 1980s he brought a group of young people from Portadown to Philadelphia as part of an exchange programme.
He was a member of the Ballymascanlon Inter-Church committee and co-chairman of its joint working party on social problems. With Bishop Anthony Farquhar he was observer for the Irish Catholic Bishops to the then newly formed Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland.
In 1984, Fr Clifford was appointed first full-time executive secretary of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. He was also joint secretary of the liaison committee which links the bishops of Britain and Ireland, and regularly represented the Bishops’ Conference at meetings abroad.
Bishop Clifford was appointed Titular Bishop of Geron on 25 March 1991 and his episcopal consecration took place on 21 April 1991.
Bishop Clifford was a member of the Council for Ecumenism and Dialogue, a member of the Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Care, and President of CURA from 2010 until 2013.