In his visit to the Republic of Ireland earlier this week, Prince Charles changed the climate in which reconciliation can take place, and massively changed it for the better.
In word as well as action, tone as well as content, public as well as in private, he moved the heart of reconciliation away from the political arena.
He took it to a place where the facing of pain, resentment, anguish and agonies (to use his own words) are put at the very centre of leaving our grandchildren “a legacy of lasting peace, forgiveness and friendship” (again, his own words).
Along with my wife, I had the great privilege of being at the service for peace and reconciliation in the beautiful little parish church in Drumclife, near Sligo.
This was not a ‘sanitised’ act of worship, but one with real substance and focus right through it.
As they were driven up to the door of the church, Prince Charles and his wife were greeted by the Sligo Gospel Choir singing the negro spiritual with the words “Ain’t gonna study war no more”, which is based very closely on the words of two Old Testament writers.
During the service itself, we heard an exquisite singing of a poignant passage from Handel’s Messiah: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace”.
The prayers too had great focus: “Out of your great generosity, make us here today generous in our love and forgiveness, and out of the pain of the past let there spring forth a new life, a new hope and a new future in our land.”
Prince Charles has left all of us living in every corner of this island with a number of very significant messages and challenges.
The first is to churches, and all their leaders and members.
Since reconciliation, generosity and grace are core to Christian faith, the Prince’s visit publicly challenges all the churches and all of us who claim to be Christian to become channels of reconciliation, generosity and grace among our own friends and neighbours and in our own local areas.
Difficult though it maybe, he also laid down a huge challenge to political leaders to find ways to model, in public as he did, similar grace and generosity – and to do so in a consistent manner, by words and actions that will take them beyond the concerns of their “own” community.
Prince Charles told something of his own story, and of his own long journey.
He said the loss of his great-uncle, Lord Mountbatten, “seemed as if the foundations of all that we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably”.
Many in our land also understand that loss only too well. Yet, in telling his own story, he invited others to tell their own stories too.
It may well be that, like him, the opportunities will open up to reach out the hand of reconciliation, and even a few more will be encouraged to step out and take the small, often unsung, initiatives which truly make a difference.
Symbolic gestures can be very powerful, but only if they lead to real change in attitude and action.
This week Prince Charles showed that all three can, in practice, be combined.
The purpose and value of his visit was summed up in one particularly powerful sentence that is still ringing in my ears – “Let us then, endeavour to become the subjects of our history and not its prisoners”.
The Very Reverend Dr Norman Hamilton is the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland