Homily of Bishop Noel Treanor, for the Lost Souls of the Titanic, St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast

16 Apr 2012

Homily of Bishop Noel Treanor on the occasion of performance of Philip Hammond’s Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic, St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast, Sunday 15 April 2012

My dear friends, I welcome you all to the celebration of this Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic on the octave of Easter Sunday, sometimes referred to as Low Sunday, now Divine Mercy Sunday in the Catholic tradition.

The liturgical celebration of this Requiem, composed by Philip Hammond with the remarkable support of the artistic, private and public sectors, finds its immediate liturgical backdrop for Christians in the liturgies and rites of the Easter Triduum – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil – which we have just celebrated in our Churches in the west and which our Orthodox brothers and sisters celebrate this weekend. In 1912 Easter Sunday fell on the 7 April, a week before the maiden voyage.

In the course of the great Easter liturgies the Christian community encounters anew each year the mystery of the God who suffers and dies. In Word, rite and sacrament, those ceremonies engage the believer, the participant, with the death of God, a chilling reality for religious faith and for thought.

From the sombre, silent, awesome memory of the death of God in Jesus of Nazareth, in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, Christians encounter the memory of the empty tomb and those traces of post-resurrection experiences recounted in the closing chapters of the gospel texts, such as today’s extract form the gospel according to St John.  The Easter Vigil itself, celebrating Christ as light, with the Easter fire and the Paschal Candle, recapitulates in its liturgy of the Word creation, the dramatic struggle in human experience between religious faith and amnesia of the divine, between chaos, disaster and the promise and hope of salvation.

The Easter rites build in particular on the searing experience of Christ’s disciples and friends, on the faith-testing and dramatic swing from their perceived death of God in this Jesus to the trans-sensual, senses-breaking, perplexing, extra-ordinary experiences of the Risen Lord.

On those Paschal days liturgical Word, Rite and Sacrament gather the present experience, aspiration and suffering of the living participants and link them to the Jewish and Christian religious history, to what Christian call salvation history. These rites and liturgies proclaim hope for humanity in the figure and life of Jesus Christ.

Thomas, the human archetype in the gospel extract we have just heard, touching, fingering a wound in that Mystery breathes forth, exclaims a word of faith. His voice may speak for many in liminal instants of human experience – those moments when we feel poised on the limit of our existence – especially that ultimate threshold moment of our passage from chronological time to the eternal, in whatever circumstances in occurs, and experienced in such freezing, frightening and watery horror on that night in the North Atlantic.

This Requiem is a homage and a commemoration for the more than 1500 who perished one hundred years ago last night. A work of creative ingenuity, like the Titanic itself, this composition acknowledges the disaster of the 14/15 April 1912. This Requiem exudes the intimation of limitation within aspiration, ambition, achievement and ingenuity.

As with our acts of commemoration and our prayers for the drowned, the lost, and those who suffered as survivors,  this music also has its source in the intimation that human mortality, human ingenuity itself, seek, aspire, hope for completion in the transcendence they intimate.

This work of composer, artists and musicians, inspired by the tragedy of that awful night in the north Atlantic, by the testimony of survivors and by the intractable reality of suffering as an integral part of the human condition, this monumental Requiem pays homage to the lost souls of the drowned, to the heroism of crew, passengers, chaplains, musicians, radio operators and many others, who gave their lives in faithful service to duty and to their fellow passengers in mortal peril.

In so doing this Requiem exhales a prayer, rooted in the depths of the human spirit,  a prayer that is an expression in music of eternal human empathy with the lost of the tragic end of the Titanic, a prayer that in this Eucharist is linked with the saving death of God in Jesus Christ.

This work, now executed in time for eternity, last night in St Anne’s, represented here today by its Dean, Reverend Canon John Mann, and today in St Peter’s Cathedrals here in Belfast, city of the ship’s construction, unites our community one hundred years later in naming the tragedy and its painful memories.

For the families of the fated passengers those memories are but two or three generations old. Having named them in music, prayer and worship, the artistic, creative and religious spirit of our city empowers us to carry our pasts with courage, humility and care for a common future free of past divisions and miscalculations.

The art and acumen of musicians, who waked the vessel to the last, now once again in her  native city, wafts the memory of the women, men and children of the sinking Titanic to prayerful and living Christian memory. It does so transcending distinction of creed, confession and race and consigns them, and all of us in fine to the domain of eternal light and peace, with the words of Lux aeterna, laced ingeniously in this composition with the words of a Jewish blessing beginning with the words, Adonai Yisa Adonai, as it invokes the archangels Michael to my right, Gabriel to my left, Uriel in front of me, Rafael behind me and, God’s presence, over my head.

Lux aeterna, (eternal light) – Requiem aeternam (eternal rest)  – Shekihah (the presence of God) – Lux (light) : thus music and prayer will mingle in the closing bars and moments of this Requiem and Mass in commemoration and eternal hope …

On this first Sunday of Easter, as we await in our earthly existence the hope of the Resurrection, we consign the dead of that maiden voyage, indeed human striving and creativity in all its dimensions of ingenuity, failure, disaster and aspiration to God’s eternal, creative, enlightening and saving Presence.