Fr Bruce Bradley SJ celebrated Mass for the whole school this morning (Sunday, 6th September). His homily focused on the tragedy that befell the Kurdi family during the week and his words resonated with the boys and their parents…
I think there’s really only one thing we should reflect on at Mass this morning. It’s the image of a little boy in a red top and blue shorts and sandals, lying face down on the sand, with his head in the sea. You know at once from the way his body is lying, his arm limp by his side, that he is dead. This is the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the toddler, we now know, is a three-year old Syrian called Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in those heavy seas at six o’clock local time last Wednesday morning, while we were all safe in our beds. Another picture shows a Turkish soldier cradling the lifeless body as he carries it away. If the soldier hadn’t been in the picture to demonstrate the scale of things, you could have thought Aylan was only a doll.
His young parents had been trying to take him and his brother, five-year old Ghalib, to safety from the violence and hopelessness of Syria, which has seen as many as four million people fleeing their homes since the present conflict there began four years ago. In all, 3,753 refugees from the various countries affected died last year, an average of almost ten every day. They take whatever they can carry and seek refuge in crowded camps beyond the borders of their own country or try, with enormous courage, like the Kurdis, to get to the safety of Europe. At least twelve Syrians drowned in this terrible incident on Wednesday morning, when their pathetically small boats capsized near the Greek island of Kos, for which they were making, overwhelmed by the high seas around them. The victims included not just Aylan but his brother Ghalib and their mother as well. Their distraught father Abdullah has described his desperate efforts to hold on to his little sons and being unable to do it before they died, then reaching out for his wife and realising that she was dead too. ‘Everything is gone’, he said, crying inconsolably. Think about the utter human devastation behind those words: everything is gone.
The pictures I’m talking about are the most heartbreaking I have seen in my whole life. I have to admit that I cried when I saw them and I will never be able to forget them. I’m saying all this on the assumption that everyone here has seen the pictures I’m referring to. But perhaps some have not. Some television channels, I know, decided not to show them; some newspapers made the same decision or pixellated the images – whether out of respect for the dignity of the dead child or to protect viewers and readers from the full horror of what is happening, I’m not sure. And if the latter, to shield us, I ask why should they do that? This is not just another news story in a world which, we know, has many tragic stories to tell. The Kurdi family’s tragedy symbolises and embodies what thousands and thousands are going through, even as we gather here, in what is now, beyond doubt, the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
That word ‘humanitarian’ should strike a very deep chord in all of us. Homo sum et nil humani a me alienum puto, the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer, Terence the African, wrote in a famous phrase, as long ago as the 2nd century before Christ: ‘I am a human being and nothing human is alien to me’. As these most wretched people, our brothers and sisters, Muslims or Christians or whatever they are, beat at the doors of Fortress Europe, none of us has any right to be unaware of their plight. A large part of education is learning how relative our place on the map is. The vast majority of us here this morning were born and have grown up and go – or have gone – to school and live in Ireland, an essentially peaceful and – in relative terms – extremely prosperous country. This is an enormous privilege and an enormous opportunity. It’s not to the credit of any of us that this is the case. We’re not to be blamed for it either. But we have to use our opportunities with a sense of responsibility to so many others, whose human lot, through no fault of their own, is so immeasurably more difficult than ours. If nothing else will do it, the devastating sight of that defenceless child dead on the seashore last Wednesday might sting our consciences and prod us into action.
And we have a deeper motive, if one were needed. We are gathered here this morning in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who said: ‘Let the little children come to me and do not turn them away. Of such is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mark 10,14). I want you to think of that little child, full of potential, full of hope for a future, like everyone here, killed by forces utterly beyond his comprehension or control, lying dead on that Turkish shore, as you hear those words of Jesus. And think of him too as you hear Jesus say: ‘As often as you cared for the least of these, you cared for me. I was the one in the capsizing boat, flipping in high seas. I was that child on the shore‘ (Cf. Matthew 26,40). Today’s Gospel, foreshadowed in the prophecy of Isaiah in the first reading, is about a man Jesus cured from deafness and the accompanying inability to speak clearly. But there are many kinds of deafness. The first visit Pope Francis made outside the Italian mainland after he was elected in March 2013 was to the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily. He went there that summer because that is where thousands of Africans seek landfall in their desperate efforts to escape the horrors and miseries of places like Eritrea, one of the most repressive countries in the world, and Libya, now collapsing into murderous chaos after the recent fall of the Gaddafi regime. Pope Francis wanted to highlight their plight and the plight of all displaced people and he spoke powerfully then and continues to speak of what he called ‘the globalisation of indifference’.
When priests and monks and nuns read or sing the psalms every morning, they begin by reciting Psalm 94, where these words occur: ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts’. So that’s the first thing: we must not turn our eyes or our ears away from the tragedy which is unfolding before us, if only we will look. We must not be deaf or blind. We must not harden our hearts. After that, we must not be dumb either. We who can, who are articulate and educated and can inform ourselves, we who live in a free society, must speak about these events. And we must resist the selfishness and avoidance in ourselves and others that says: ‘This is none of our business. We didn’t invade Iraq. We were never colonists. We have problems of our own. We have enough to do here to solve the problem of the homeless’. And so on.
Politicians, regrettably, for the most part and with the very honourable and important exception of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, do not lead in these situations – they wait to see which way the wind of popular opinion is blowing. So we should speak up, we should sign petitions to have the Dáil recalled, we should support vigils of solidarity, like those held around Ireland yesterday. We should let our government and our politicians know we want them to act. And we should contribute according to our means to the charities that are active on behalf of these asylum-seekers and refugees – the Trócaire website has all the information we need about this. It’s very encouraging to hear of the small but growing number of households around this country and elsewhere who are volunteering to give shelter to refugee families in their own homes. This is true Christianity at work, the Gospel coming alive.
The Church, the community of those who believe in Jesus Christ, who listen to his word of compassion, above all compassion for the poor, should be at the heart of any properly human response to a crisis like this. This is – supposedly at least – a Christian school. Gathered like this, we are the Church. We must not be indifferent. If Clongowes is producing young people whose focus is on themselves, impervious to the lot of others in much tougher situations than ours, concerned only with their own ambitions and their own futures, we are failing them and failing the wider world and Clongowes has no right to exist.
In a short while at this Mass we will approach Jesus himself when we, as the phrase puts it, ‘go to Communion’. Let us remind ourselves that receiving Communion is a sacred act. When we go to Communion, we go to encounter Jesus, to take him into our lives, into our hearts. Getting up from where we are sitting and joining the procession to the minister – and we should think of it as a procession, not a queue – is making a big statement. The statement is: I am in solidarity with Jesus Christ. I wish to be identified with him, with his teaching and his values, with Jesus himself. I wish to let him into my life and take the risk of being influenced in my depths by him. Jesus is calling us this morning to open our ears and our eyes, to use our voices and our resources, to open our hearts, to people who are among the most wretched of the earth. When we go to Communion, we are saying ‘yes’ to his call to be in solidarity with them, in whatever we can. If we cannot or do not wish to do that, perhaps we should stay quietly in our places. Perhaps in time we will be able to say that ‘yes’. But let each one of us here remember: going to Communion, receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, is a deeply serious act.
Let me end with a prayer. Lord, cure our deafness. Open our eyes to the needs of those around us, those who belong to us but also – and not least – to the strangers who come to our shore. Comfort Abdullah Kurdi, and all those like him, who are grieving for their lost loved ones and their devastated lives. And may those small boys, Aylan and Ghalib, and their mother, and all their fellow-refugees killed by other people’s wars, killed by the world’s indifference, killed perhaps even by our indifference, rest in peace.