Kathy Sheridan: All unite to support the bereaved

Believers and non-believers come together in rituals to remember those lost in Berkeley

Almost from the moment the news broke about the Berkeley tragedy, a man with a soft Banbridge accent became the accidental voice of a broken Irish community 8,000 kilometres away in San Francisco.

Fr Aidan McAleenan, a pastor in nearby St Columba’s parish, only 10 years a priest and a former J-1 student himself, never pretended it was easy.

When he found himself in a hospital among a group of shocked, uncommunicative young men, one of whom had just lost two friends, he admitted he didn’t know what to say or do.

Many years of reporting on tragedies have not inured me to the heart-wrenching sight of young men in their teens and 20s, in urgently acquired black suits, standing silent, lost and disbelieving at the funeral of one of their own.


Where is the formula of words to console traumatised people whose exuberant, freewheeling love affair with life was underwritten by a sense of invincibility, an ignorance of grief ?

The loss of innocence is almost tangible. They know now that terrible things do happen to people like them and they can never unknow it. It grieves us for those young people left behind.

“The ‘J-1’ will never sound the same again,” said a wistful young woman outside the church in UCD at last Friday’s memorial service for the students who died. She was last in a church for a wedding 12 months ago, she said. Last time for me was for a funeral, I said.

Oasis of peace

No doubt most of the 500 or so people gathered in that oasis of peace and contemplation would have said the same. College chaplain Fr Leon Ó Giolláin acknowledged as much when he addressed us as “believers or non-believers, Christians or other . . . ”

And yet we were here, non-believers and other, in a church, dabbing away tears, finding release in the heartfelt prayers of students, in the stirring Irish laments on cello and piano, in a gloriously sung Pie Jesu and the beautiful old Celtic blessing: "Deep peace of the gentle night to you/Moon and stars pour their healing light on you . . . Deep peace of Christ to you."

We were the same people who only a few weeks ago had nodded balefully at Archbishop Diarmuid Martin when, after the marriage equality referendum, he conceded that the church needed to do a reality check and ask itself had it “drifted away completely from young people”. Bit late for that, we said, pleased we had put an ocean of clear blue water between them and us.

Yet last week it seemed the most natural thing in the world to hear a Co Down priest become a voice for broken families and traumatised students an ocean away, to hear Fr McAleenan say his church of St Columba, named after an Irish saint, would “take care of its own . . . The families decided what they wanted . . . They wanted it to be like home.”

Hour upon heartsick hour, we heard of Masses, vigils, prayer services and tree-planting in church grounds, all attended by vast numbers of young people finding solace, connection and meaning in old rituals.

And hour upon hour, we found ourselves listening to the words of bishops, chaplains and priests, in all their weary helplessness, listening to people who a few weeks ago seemed about as relevant as snowploughs in the Sahara.

Poignantly, the bereaved families wanted the rituals around their children’s deaths to be “like home”. But what does that mean in modern Ireland? If a similar disaster had happened at home, would there have been the same media focus on Catholic voices and places of ritual?

Is it only because it happened a continent away that we noticed how the church remains so deeply entwined with us in our times of sorrow, that it became almost an emblem of our nationhood and connectedness, like the beloved Aer Lingus planes that flew our children home?

The received wisdom is that most young people don’t know what the inside of a church looks like any more. Below this piece online, there will probably be a river of vitriol – some of it well earned – towards the church and its agents. But the full truth about ourselves as a nation remains somewhere beyond that.

Family values

For example, a poll for The Irish Times about family values conducted by Ipsos MRBI in March, suggests that people under 35 – our young people – are the most likely to have their children baptised. And that 95 per cent of them have done so.

Why? Some are hypocrites, of course. If you believe they are all hypocrites, however, then you risk patronising vast numbers of your fellow citizens and you may also believe that all the Yes voters for marriage equality were mindless, sentimental fools.

Observing the rituals of these weeks and many other weeks, it seems there is something there that speaks to us in times of trial and of joy.

I don’t pretend to know what it is, but the words of Rumi, the great 13th century Persian poet and philosopher, come to mind: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”