The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is urging all parties in Northern Ireland to seize the "unique opening for peace" there and has asked the Clinton administration to give active support to the British and Irish governments as they seek an end to the violence.
In letters made public yesterday, the U.S. Catholic bishops appeared to be echoing British Prime Minister John Major's statement about the new effort to stop the bloodshed.
"If they lose this opportunity," Mr. Major warned, "it might never come their way again."
Mr. Major and Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds signed in London Wednesday the declaration in which Britain for the first time formally acknowledged the possibility of a united Ireland if a majority of people in the north and south should agree in separate votes.
The document, resulting from two years of secret talks and weeks of intensive negotiations, aims to persuade the Catholic IRA and the loyalist Protestant guerrillas to lay down their arms and begin diplomacy.
Writing to Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher on behalf of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly said: "Recent developments offer a unique opening for peace in Northern Ireland, but this opportunity must be seized to secure a permanent cessation of the violence.
"We would hope that the U.S. government would support the British and Irish governments in urgently and creatively pursuing the cause of peace in this new environment."
Bishop Reilly of Norwich, Conn., was elected chairman last month of the Catholic hierarchy's International Policy Committee.
He wrote to Sir Robin Renwick, London's ambassador in Washington, encouraging the British government to "take full advantage of the developments of recent weeks to press on with negotiations until a formula for peace is found. The opportunity for a settlement must not be lost."
Bishop Reilly told Sir Robin that U.S. church officials, "together with the church and bishops in Northern Ireland," would "do all we can to promote a peaceful settlement" of the bitter sectarian conflict that has taken more than 3,000 lives in the last quarter-century.
The spokesman for the U.S. bishops wrote an almost identical letter to Dermot Gallagher, the Irish ambassador in Washington, saying: "We earnestly hope that you will use your good offices to support the process of dialogue now under way until a just and lasting peace is reached."