The tragedy was that of a popular, pious, immigrant couple, well-heeled and living in one of Sydney’s lush Northern suburbs, with two beautiful small children – both gifted but unfortunately autistic, deaf and dumb. Last October the father filled the house with carbon monoxide to kill himself and his whole family, leaving their fellow-parishioners in a state of bewilderment and almost despair. The Parish Priest, a remarkable man of faith, a former Cistercian monk, a respected theologian and Vicar-General of the diocese, faced the challenge of celebrating the Requiem Mass and preaching a homily which had to try to make Christian sense of a murder-suicide that sent shock waves throughout Australia and beyond.
The international Press picked up the story and reported that the preacher had dared to ask the question : “Where was God on that weekend, where was God in the silence” (I would add, and the gas) ” that filled that family’s home that Sunday ?”. It did not publish the priest’s attempt to answer his own questions, so I wrote to ask him what he had said. To my surprise, he sent me the text of his homily, which he has kindly allowed me to publish here.
Repeating the question, “Where is God ?” in his funeral oration, he offered the following reply : “God is here : God is in life shared in the face of death. God is present as we wash the feet of one another even in the face of our fears and anxieties. This is Resurrected life – a light that no darkness can extinguish.” He concluded his homily by saying that “in life shared in the face of death, by washing the feet of each other in the face of our fears and anxieties, a hope is discovered. And for those who hope, there is always a future.”
Eloquent words, noble sentiments, a reaffirmation of faith, an admirable, compassionate effort to console the grieving by reinforcing their sense of community, to offer hope as they mourned a couple who had lost theirs and whose lives ended in despair.
For their pastor, it was a Mission Impossible. But his parishioners heard the best that the Church has to offer in such circumstances. Their lives will go on, marked forever by an event they will never forget, their faith shaken but presumably intact. But one has to wonder, if the tragedy had taken place outside such a religious context, whether anyone could offer mourners a consolation essentially any different from the appeal to solidarity to find the courage to bite the bullet and carry on. “God” was absent; “God” was silent. “God” did nothing because “He” is a mental construct, without substance or reality, an illusion like the afterlife His spokesmen promise.
God, Christians are told, is love. That surely means that love is “God”. Where there is real love between people, “God” is there. But that “God” is not a Person. He, she, it is a bond between people, if you like, that makes them better than they are as individuals, gives them strength and fulfillment and puts meaning into their lives. When it is strong enough, we become almost divine, capable of a courage and generosity which even the cruel death of loved ones cannot destroy. No need to wonder why a non-existent “God” lets family tragedies and other disasters happen. What matters is how, as far as possible, we avoid and prevent them, how we react to them, and the solidarity we muster to put them behind us as we pursue the challenge and the adventure of life.
HOMILY FOR THE FUNERAL OF MARIA CLAUDIA LUTZ, FERNANDO MANRIQUE, ELISA AND MARTIN. Fr.David Ranson, Holy Name Church Wahroonga. 31 October 2016.
“The poet Rilke once responded to a young correspondent, remarking that we are to have patience with everything that is unsolved in our heart, and learn to live with the questions that grip us.
In the face of the tragedy that has haunted us over these last two weeks, Rilke’s wisdom, however, is almost too difficult for us to accept. For the questions that have arisen in our minds and hearts over these days have been overwhelming and have shattered us. They have touched places deep within us, exposing our fragility and our fear, crucifying the illusion of certainty, and eroding our confidence.
The question of ‘Why ?’ would be difficult enough, if it did not then translate into a score of others : questions about human nature and our trust in its resilience. We have been disturbed by the questions about the depth of social isolation that can be experienced by families, and especially by men – husbands and fathers – in their struggle to provide and to be present to those that they love, especially when circumstances are challenging. Questions of regret; questions of guilt. Questions about our own anxieties and impulses that make despair understandable. Questions about our relationships and about that incommunicable silence that lies deep within each one of us and admits of no entry by others, no matter how close they are to us, and that underscores the Spanish saying, ‘We never know the thirst from which another person drinks’. And in the face of this, we question how we can ever protect one another.
With such personal questions we have been left unnerved, unsure. And so have those around us. In the face of what we have experienced, our society cannot avoid questions about its capacity to respond to families living constantly with disabilities, just as our Church cannot avoid the question about its own response to those families and persons who look to it for acceptance and a rightful place in its community life, and for different reasons do not find it.
The tragedy in which we are living has exposed the fault lines in our life together. And we question if the fissures that have opened can ever be bridged satisfactorily. Yet, as we face the future, we have begun to wonder about the legacy that might be present in the depths of what has been experienced, even if we question our capacity and our commitment to attend to the implications of this legacy and our courage to effect change.
And then we come to the most dramatic of questions : the question about God. Where was God on that weekend ? Where was God in the silence that filled Fernando and Maria’s house that Sunday ? The apparent absence of God is the most difficult question of all. Where was God for Maria Claudia and Fernando, and for Eli and Martin ? Where is God for us ?
The silence that greets our question seems almost unbearable.
Yet, in the morning after we learnt of the dreadful news, we lit four candles. Their flames were fragile, yet in their flickering light we held one another and cried. We began to share our confusion, our grief, our memories. People came forward to be present to us. We looked for ways to be still with each other. We sought to live the Gospel text we have proclaimed (John 13) : what garments of pretence and presumption we may have had were discarded; we sought to attend to one another where we were hurting. We began to plan for this moment of gratitude for the lives of Fernando, Claudia Maria, Eli and Martin, surprised and assured by the generosity of so many who have come together to help us.
Into our midst, then, came the families of Maria Claudia and Fernando from far away. Their embrace of one another, their solidarity in sorrow, and their shared presence confounded an alternative logic, and invited us into a new way of being with each other in our awful experience of loss. They became for us a living parable of Jesus’ action in the midst of His own grief and fear on the night before He died, about which we have read.
And in all these tender moments, those flickering flames we lit two weeks ago have glowed stronger and stronger in our hearts and in our memories.
Where is God ? God is here : God is in life shared in the face of death. God is present as we wash the feet of one another even in the face of our fears and anxieties. This is Resurrected life – a light that no darkness can extinguish.
Will this change the world ? Will it mean that we are protected ? Will it mean that those families with disabilities will no longer have to struggle with the thousand and one concerns that confront them ?
No, but in life shared in the face of death, by washing the feet of each other in the face of our fears and anxieties, a hope is discovered. And for those who hope, there is always a future.”