Saint Patrick’s, Armagh
- My dear families of the Disappeared, your experience and painful vigil has many lessons for the wider healing and reconciliation of our troubled past.
- Together we still gather each Palm Sunday, hoping against hope, that even at this late stage someone will come forward with fresh or more precise information to help the Independent Commission with its search.
- There are people on all sides who carry secrets – memories of their own involvement in the deaths and injury of thousands of men, women and children. In some cases they pulled the trigger, planted the bomb, blindly followed orders or gave the command for death or punishment. In other cases they willingly drove a car, kept watch, spread fear, collected money or information, sheltered combatants, colluded or covered up, destroyed evidence or intimidated witnesses. These were awful, terrible times.
The reading of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is taken this year from the Gospel of Matthew. Since this is my third time to join you – the families of the Disappeared – for your annual Palm Sunday Mass, that means we have now listened together to the full cycle of Palm Sunday gospels: from Mark, Luke and Matthew. Of course John’s Passion account is solemnly read every year, on Good Friday afternoon at 3.00pm.
The four gospel accounts of Our Lord’s suffering, death and Resurrection have some differences in detail and emphasis but one thing they have in common is the quiet and dignified presence of a small group of friends who remain with Jesus through it all. They follow Him as He struggles along the sorrowful road to Calvary; they see Him bruised, tortured, humiliated and unjustly condemned. At first they stand at a distance from His horrific crucifixion; then they move in closer as He breathes His last. They watch as Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the lifeless body of Jesus, wraps it in a shroud and lays it in a new tomb nearby. Among them are some women from Galilee, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who keep vigil at the burial place of their dear and beloved Jesus.
Today, when I think of that gathering of faithful followers who did not give up on Jesus, I cannot help but think of your dedicated and sometimes lonely vigil as you wait or waited for news of your beloved Disappeared. You have remained faithful to them and to each other over many years. It is particularly moving that so many of you whose relatives were found have continued to come here in solidarity with others. Together we still gather each Palm Sunday, hoping against hope, that even at this late stage someone will come forward with fresh or more precise information to help the Independent Commission with its search.
Your gospel companions are the faithful friends of Jesus, who with His dear mother followed Him along the Via Dolorosa, remained at His Cross as He was dying, wept as He died and was laid in the tomb, and kept vigil at His place of burial. We turn for strength to these saintly disciples today, as we too wait in hope for the recovery of the truth.
There has been much talk in recent days about dealing with the past in Ireland. Legacy issues remain a stumbling block in our peace process. There is still so much to be done to uncover the truth so that the full stories of what happened during the Troubles can be told; that the dead can rest peacefully in their graves; that the bereaved and injured can find healing; and, that a just and lasting foundation can be put in place on which an honest and shared future can be built for us all.
People have become more conscious recently of the urgency of developing appropriate mechanisms for truth-telling about the past, and the sharing of information that will ease the endless questioning, and calm the restless yearning for clarity that still imprisons so many families here. Those who were involved and who hold vital clues and information are getting older and some are dying. Memories are fading. The will to engage is perhaps waning. Family members of victims are themselves getting older. Some have already gone to their rest; others have grown frail and are no longer able to join us here. But the unanswered questions do not disappear with death. They linger on, as a constant nagging reminder to the next generation of unfinished business, of a grief that is unsatisfied with silence, a pain that does not go away but lies beneath, an unhealed wound that is passed on from children to grandchildren.
All across this island, in Britain and beyond, there are people on all sides who carry secrets – memories of their own involvement in the deaths and injury of thousands of men, women and children. In some cases they pulled the trigger, planted the bomb, blindly followed orders or gave the command for death or punishment. In other cases they willingly drove a car, kept watch, spread fear, collected money or information, sheltered combatants, colluded or covered up, destroyed evidence or intimidated witnesses. These were awful, terrible times. Shocking and horrific things happened. There must be so many people walking around today who know in their hearts that the information that they have locked down inside them is capable of unlocking the uncertainty and grief of families. Those who were involved must, of course, find their own peace with God and with society. For our part, we need to find a mechanism of truth and information retrieval which will allow more of these people to come forward so that many more families can be set free from the agony of waiting and wondering, “why?” Even in the absence of a formal mechanism, I am confident that there are trustworthy people in society and in the Churches who would be willing, and could be empowered and enabled, to accept and sensitively share information in this regard.
My dear families of the Disappeared, your experience and painful vigil has many lessons for the wider healing and reconciliation of our troubled past. You, more than any, appreciate how precious it is when someone comes forward and shares details of what they knew, or did, way back then. The process that was set in place for an Independent Commission to locate the remains of your loved ones created a mechanism to guarantee those who came forward that the information they provided would only be used for the recovery of the bodies of the Disappeared. Today I appeal again to the conscience of anyone who can help with the cases of Joe Lynskey, Robert Nairac, Seamus Ruddy and Columba McVeigh to bring even the slightest clues to the Commissioners’ attention so that the agonising wait of the remaining families can be shortened and their loved ones can at last have a Christian burial.
There are other families, whose loved ones were never included in the list of the Disappeared, who remain anguished and tormented by uncertainty about what happened. These too must be helped to find answers and peace.
In Matthew’s Passion account which we read today, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there at the Cross and at the burial of Jesus. When they returned to the spot on Easter morning they discovered that He had risen. Immediately they went to tell the others. They became witnesses to the victory of hope over despair, of joy over sadness, of light over darkness. Inspired by them, may you, and countless other families across this country and these islands, never lose hope in your long and painful vigil for truth.
I am conscious today that this is a critical time in the peace process. Our politicians continue to seek a breakthrough at the talks in Stormont. I encourage everyone, as we begin this Holy Week, to pray for wisdom, courage, right judgement, and a spirit of cooperation and compromise. Today I offer the prayer written by Rev Cecil Kerr during some of the worst years of the Troubles, a prayer we hoped would never need to be used again:
A Prayer for Ireland
Lord Jesus Christ,
You are the way of peace.
Come into the brokenness of this land
With your healing love.
Help us to be willing to bow before you
In true repentance,
And to bow to one another
In true forgiveness.
By the fire of your Holy Spirit
Melt our hard hearts and consume
The pride and prejudice
Which separate us from each other.
Fill us, O Lord with your perfect love
Which casts out fear
And bind us together in that unity
Which you share with the Father
And the Holy Spirit forever.