Building a future on the kindness of strangers


Compassion as well as professionalism

My mum died last week. On the same day another friend lost her mother-in-law. Two weeks previously the father of another close friend died. And it’s a fair bet that many of you will have lost a loved one recently.

Globally, it is estimated that some 153,000 people die every day. Death is a workaholic; always busy harvesting souls.

I was once told: “You know you’re getting old when you get closer to the front of the church at funerals”. At the Mass for my mum, my brother, sister and I were in the first pew. It’s a lonely place to be.

Her death is too recent for me to be able to comprehend fully the enormity of it. I just know I miss her lots. A meditation on existentialism will have to wait for another day.

Human beings have been trying to grapple with the mystery of death and its consequences since the beginning of time. Philosophers and theologians have had a go. Poets and musicians too have explored the interface between life and death. But until we make the journey ourselves, we will never really know.

As a child I was always embarrassed when the story of doubting Thomas was read at Mass. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

The older I get, the more I recognise that his refusal to believe was a natural human response. We like our knowledge to be evidence based, and there are just not enough hard facts about the hereafter to say with certainty what lies beyond.

Faith, for those who have it, fills the gap. My late father had it, and my mother too. He talked with pride of the confraternities in his native Limerick, and regretted their passing. My mum wanted to be buried wearing a blue ribbon that marked her out as one of the Children of Mary. The cheap tin medal was so precious to her that we found it in her jewellery box.

Before she died she received the last rites (a much more satisfying term than its post Vatican II alternative). By then she had lost her capacity to speak, and I don’t know how much she was able to comprehend. But I hope it brought her comfort.

I am more certain about the impact of others who ministered to her. She was first taken ill in June, and treated at home and in Lurgan’s day hospital.

A ‘re-ablement’ team visited her four times a day to help get her back on her feet. Her GPs checked on her progress. Physiotherapists patiently worked to improve her stability. Ambulance men came twice, once after a fall at home, and once to bring her to hospital. They were amazing. Nurses took blood, sampled urine, checked and re-checked blood pressure. Support staff kept her clean and made her comfortable; young doctors tried to find out what was going wrong and how to treat it. She was X-rayed, scanned, and examined by people trained in the mysteries of modern medicine.

Many of you will have seen similar levels of support for relatives and friends – perhaps you will have experienced it yourself. Today we expect the health and social care service will have systems, processes and treatments in place to deal with our needs.

What I was unprepared for was the depth of compassion shown to her by people doing a tough job in an area where the demand on their services outstrips the resources available. You expect family to step up to the plate, and they did. But strangers?

I witnessed countless acts of love from those who cared for her – women and men who had no blood ties to motivate them, and who could have done their job effectively but clinically and dispassionately.

Like doubting Thomas, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes. I should have known better of course. My mother lived her life by countless kindnesses – a fact brought home to me by the words of many at her wake. But there are none so blind as those who will not see.

In a real sense that is a metaphor too for our society. If collectively we were more aware of the kindness of strangers, we might find it easier to create the type of society we want for ourselves and our children.

  • A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on August 28 2015.


Just cogs in the machine – turning a blind eye to horror


Bodies carried ashore from boat tragedy

Hedy Bohm is 86. When she was just 16 she was transported to Auschwitz from her home in Romania. The experience has haunted her life. But she is a survivor, and this week she travelled to Germany to give evidence at the trial of Oskar Gröning.

He too says his life has been haunted by what he witnessed in the Nazi concentration camp. Gröning is a survivor too; but he was wearing an SS uniform, not a grubby uniform with a yellow star.

Oskar Gröning was one of 6,500 SS men in Auschwitz: 43 have been charged with offences, and only 25 have been convicted. It is a pretty sorry record.

Hedy is hoping to see Gröning behind bars. It was his job to take luggage from the Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other men and women branded ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis. Having lost their liberty, they were then deprived of the last few things they treasured.

Imagine what would have been in those suitcases: imagine you were forced to flee your home. What would you take? And what would you leave behind? That will not be much of a stretch of the imagination for some. Within recent history there were refugees in Belfast, and we are living still with the consequences of that mass movement of people.

In his defence, Gröning says he was just “a small cog in the machine”. And maybe he was. But more than a million people died in Auschwitz – he is charged with complicity in the deaths of 300,000 – and there is not much time left to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Hedy Bohm knows what she thinks of his excuse. “Whether you’re a bookkeeper, a supplier, a driver, a cook, whatever you are, if what you’re doing helps the machinery of death of a regime to keep rolling, you should be called to account. No one should ever be allowed to say ‘I was just a small cog in the machine’.”

There is nothing to compare what happened in Germany with what is happening on the seas between Africa and Europe. But there are parallels, and the scale of human suffering is truly horrifying. Not a week goes by without some tragedy.

Refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants are the labels we put on the victims in an attempt to distance ourselves from the reality that they are men, women and children – no different from ourselves.

And through the indifference of governments that we elect, they have been exploited by traffickers who herd them on to ships unfit for animals.

Europe has turned a blind eye to their plight – primarily because we do not want them to be a ‘drain’ on our resources. The British and Irish governments are complicit.

Indeed, the machinery of European states has been mobilized to repel those who are trying to come to our shores for safety. It is the equivalent of relieving pressure on the NHS by telling the police to stop sick people reaching hospital.

Last year, Europe closed its search and rescue mission on the pretext that it encouraged people to have a go at crossing the Mediterranean.

The International Organization for Migration believes 30,000 could lose their lives there this year – the number trying to cross is growing. Last year more than 3,000 deaths were recorded. The 800 who died in the sinking on Sunday – many locked below deck – brought this year’s total to almost 2,000.

One of the few world leaders to speak out on behalf of the victims is Pope Francis. This week he called on European governments to provide sanctuary for the victims, to stop the traffickers, and to deal with the underlying issues that have created the crisis in the first place – war, greed, power politics, and poverty.

His has been a lone voice since the early weeks of his pontificate. His first pastoral visit after his election was to the Italian island of Lamperdusa – just 80 miles off the coast of Tunisia – where he prayed for the victims of traffickers and called on governments to act.

Condemning the “global indifference” to the plight of refugees, he said we had lost our sense of “brotherly responsibility”. His words have fallen on deaf ears. But they apply to us all.

In one way or another, we are each a “small cog in the machine”. It is time to act. It is time to pressurize our governments to put the lives of vulnerable people above national self-interest.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on Friday April 24 2015