- “It takes a wise heart to look at the rubble of what has been shattered in the past and to make it into a foundation for the future“ – Bishop McKeown
We gather in St Mary’s Church where the funerals took place for those who died on that terrible day, January 30th, 1972. On the following Wednesday February 2nd, this church was packed and many thousands of us stood outside in a soft swirling mist and a storm of emotions. The shooting of 26 unarmed civilians in little more than 10 minutes – and the death of 14, including 6 who were under 18 years of age – was a trauma never to be forgotten. Tonight, we gather in faith as people have done here every year. In the Lord’s presence we are sensitive to where everybody is and to the still voice of God who speaks grace into pain and loss.
Those of us gathered here this evening have known for a long time that this anniversary was approaching. What happened 50 years ago on the streets of this city was such a shocking event that has reverberated down through the years and around the world. Unarmed civilians were gunned down by the state when all they were doing was protesting against decades of injustice.
There is no doubt now as to what we remember. The Saville tribunal overturned the Widgery whitewash, though it took 38 years for an acknowledgement of what the families always knew to be true. But though there are no doubts as to what happened, we can reflect on how we chose to remember what we recall with love.
What might Jesus have to say to us to help us remember the loss of life and the loss of innocence that happened that Sunday afternoon?
Firstly, Jesus said that the truth will set you free. Had truth been spoken that day and over the next weeks, so many lives and so much pain could have been spared. But when truth is killed to protect the system, the initial pain is multiplied. As with many other tragedies in our history, the system frustrated the desire of families to get at the truth. Blatant lies were told. Campaigners were sometimes seen as obsessive. That put huge pressure on mental health and on relationships. Institutions – whether in state, church or non-state actors – tell stories of their own heroism. And that makes it very hard for them to admit the presence of sin in their ranks. People are crushed when institutions or organisations lie to preserve their reputation. We still have much truth to discover about many other deaths. Many people still know truths that they are reluctant to share. We deserve an agreed system that creates space for the truth to be told about the thousands of unsolved murders. Drawing a line under the past always suits those who have much to hide. Today we remember those whose lives were lost by brutal violence – and all those who suffered terribly because of the lies that were told.
Secondly, we all know that finding peace with the past is very difficult. Many of our societies struggle to know how they remember unsavoury chapters in their history. How do we deal with slavery and colonialism, the treatment of those who offended against society’s morals and the banishment of the poor to Australia for stealing food or a handkerchief?
There are various attitudes that can be employed. There are those prefer to stoke the flames of rage, believing that the fire of anger will cleanse the wound r promote a modern agenda. There are others who want to let sleeping dogs lie and prefer not to grapple with uncomfortable truths that might disturb our comfort in the present. But there is another way. It seeks to acknowledge the past but to have compassion and forgiveness for those who were caught up in systems and situations that they can now look at with other eyes. There is a grace-filled art in forgiving and remembering. It takes a wise heart to look at the rubble of what has been shattered in the past and to make it into a foundation for the future. If all we do with the past is to use it as a heap of angry stones to throw at other people, then we cannot build. Either we process the rubbish of the past and make it into life-giving compost – or it lies in the corner and benefits no-one. I hope that our celebrations this weekend will help us all to build a future full of hope for our young people and not nourish them on bitter anger that can only kills and destroy. A new society on the island needs big hearts. It will not be created by small minds.
Thirdly, I was delighted when Bishop Andrew Forster said that he would join us this evening. His presence builds on the courageous work begun by Bishops Daly and Mehaffey some 40 years ago. They showed a way forward long before warring politicians would sit in the same room. That good work was built on when, at the publication of the Saville Report, Bishop Ken Good, Rev Norman Hamilton and Rev Paul Kingston received a warm welcome when they came to meet victims’ families at the monument. The people of this city have shown great dignity and courage, often leading the way for the rest of Northern Ireland to follow. The suffering endured has borne the seed of solidarity and not merely of anger. The dignity of the people means that we do not look like a post-conflict society. Music and community have enabled the population to be known for its welcome and great stories. This is a city that can look back with compassion on the past. For it is a town that we all love so well. Phil Coulter’s song doesn’t forget the barbed wire and guns and the gas that hung on every breeze. But he knew the burning local pride and remembered his first pay and what he learned about life. Love changes everything and gives us eyes to see little beauties that brighten the dark. Bishop Andrew, your presence here invites us to pray together and work for a bright brand-new day.
Tonight, we remember those who died and those who were scarred by their deaths. But we also remember those who risked everything as they went to help the injured. Some are here tonight, and others died on that January afternoon. We remember heroism and strength of character in those who sought and fought for the truth. And, as people of faith, we remember that there is more grace and goodness in the world than sin and evil.
And we pray that those whom we have loved can be at peace and that we can find peace at their leaving us.
Together we can acknowledge the patronage of St Columba and use his words in prayer
“Be a bright light before me, O God, a guiding star above me. A smooth path below me a kindly shepherd behind me today, tonight and for ever.”
May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed…..
Notes for Editors
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.
- This Mass will be celebrated at 7.30pm this evening and is the Annual Mass in St Mary’s Church, Creggan, for the victims of Bloody Sunday.
- Many families will be present and taking part.
- Bishop Andrew Forster to be present.
- Main celebrant and preacher will be Bishop Donal McKeown
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