THE Parish priest of the Holy Family Church in Ballymagroarty, Derry has delivered a touching homily at the funerals of the five victims of the Buncrana Pier tragedy.
During Easter Thursday funeral service, Fr Patrick O’Kane, told mourners that when the news broke on Sunday evening that a terrible accident had happened on Buncrana pier his prayers for the dead and bereaved included a prayer for the priest who would have to face the family and at the funeral try to make sense of this tragedy.
“Little did I think I was praying for myself,” he said.
He continued: “Then at seven o’clock on Monday morning I got a call ‘It’s Louise James here, Fr Paddy’ she said ‘that was my husband, my children, my mother, my sister that died yesterday evening.’ Stunned, I later made my way to her home where the grief was palpable. Grown men stood, red eyed, in silence. Words could not come to my lips to put any shape on what I felt inside. A reverend silence felt more appropriate as I gripped her hand. As I kissed her cheek, I tasted the salt of her tears. ‘I am so, so sorry’ was all I could muster, and I hoped it was enough.
“There comes a time when you struggle with doubt and darkness, when you stand on the brink of emptiness and despair, of anguish, fear and loneliness, that you are tempted to ask ‘Is there a God? And if there is, where is He now? If you are a God of kindness and compassion, come out of your hiding place and show yourself!
“Tomorrow, Good Friday, we will hear Christ on the Cross scream out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ We can make our own that lonely, painful prayer of desolation today.
We struggle today to find words to speak the unspeakable. We are bewildered by the intensity of this grief for I know Louise that – as I have already said- there is nothing I can say today to alleviate your pain and sense of loss. This is a desert experience, barren of any comfort, as we search for an oasis of hope in this bleak landscape and as we struggle to find there any refreshing words of life and healing.
“When I visited the funeral home on Tuesday morning and saw the five coffins, their occupants so peaceful in that sleep we call death, I broke down in tears. I was bereft and deep sighs came from my heart. When finally prompted to pray by the undertaker, the words seemed to echo, so empty and hollow.
And yet there is one little sliver of light, one ray of hope bravely breaking through the dark clouds and it is this – little Rioghnach Ann has been saved. As Louise says to me again and again ‘She is my only reason to go on living’. I baptised her at this font on 23rd January in the company of her parents Louise and Sean, her godparents Joshua and Gemma and her extended family. The day before I paid them a visit at St. Eithne’s Park where they made me welcome and asked me to bless their beautiful little family home. While I was there I was told that little Evan had muscular dystrophy and how Louise has so far raised £16,000 for that charity including a tandem parachute jump from 14,000 feet.
“Two weeks ago we were gathered as a family again when he made his First Confession – that same little Evan who, when his mother phoned him at five to seven on Sunday evening as they sat on the Pier to watch the sunset, said ‘Mammy I miss you so much. I am going to give you the biggest, tightest hug you ever got, when I see you again’.
“We were also here last May when Mark received the Sacrament of Confirmation and last July when Ann, Sean’s younger sister died from cancer. I also knew the Daniels family from the time I was a young priest in the Bogside during the 1970s.”
On this Holy Thursday in the liturgy of the church we find Jesus washing the dusty feet of his friends. If our faith remains only as words it is empty. Today Jesus tells us not to be self-centred, but self-giving, not to be hard hearted but life giving for actions speak louder than words. It is not about ‘what’s in it for me or us?’ but about ‘what’s in it for others?’
“We are called to reach out in service to those around us so that the Kingdom of God may come among us and perhaps, just perhaps, because of us, as the first reading you heard challenged us, the blind can see a bit more clearly, the lame man can walk with only one crutch, the deaf hear the song of their own hearts, the mute speak a few mumbled words and the poor feel a little more enriched.
“We saw it in the self-sacrifice of Sean on Sunday evening as he desperately tried to save his family. We saw that altruism again in the bravery of Davitt Walsh who saved the life of Rioghnach Ann by swimming out to rescue her. Davitt, today we salute you as our hero….
“We had a meeting in our Parochial house on Tuesday when Louise and her family met you to thank you for all you did and also your girlfriend Stephanie Knox for her quick thinking as she warmed the baby’s little blue body back to life. Louise thanked you both sincerely from the bottom of her heart and for trying to save the lives of her sons.
“‘Don’t blame yourself that you did not do more – we are so grateful for what you did’’ she says. Davitt once played soccer for Derry city and he looks a fit man, all of which stood to him in his ordeal. “It could easily have been seven deaths, not five,” Louise added, before passing the baby to Davitt to hold. She opened her beautiful blue eyes, smiled up at him and had a big yawn.
We saw that generosity of spirit in Frances Crawford and others who raised the alarm, in the emergency services who responded to the call for help – for they did all that was humanly possible to resuscitate the bodies which thankfully were recovered immediately. We saw it in the way this community has rallied around Louise and all those who grieve here today. The kindness of strangers is another ray of light to lift us from our darkness.
Louise, your faith is strong as I hear you say how your sons Mark and Evan, partner Sean, mother Ruth and Jodie Lee your only sister, are now reunited in heaven with your little baby Joshua who lived for only seventeen hours. You are just going to have to wait a little longer till you get that tight hug promised to you from Evan.
When our backs are against the wall and we have nowhere else to turn sometimes all we can do is cry out with Christ’s disciples. ‘Lord, to whom else can we go for you alone possess the words of eternal life?