In a time of tragedy, Christ is always with us. CNS photo/Mike Crupi

In times of tragedy, Jesus’ presence is felt

By  Richard Olson, Catholic Register Special
  • January 13, 2013

GUELPH, ONT.  - In my role as a vice principal in a Catholic high school, God is revealed in raw emotional landscapes: old-fashioned fist fights, cruel words in 120 character texts that ravage reputations, startlingly tragic losses.

On a wall in my office hang some crucifixes: a Mayan one from Guatemala, an Italian one from Assisi, a tarnished pewter one that once hung in a hospital chapel. On the surface, they are a collection, a Catholic cluster. At a deeper level, they all witness to the places of hurt where God meets us in our daily suffering, the way God is found in Jesus on the cross.

On the Friday that began Christmas vacation, Eric, one of our Grade 12 students, was driving the family car to pick up a friend for a movie. Water, the same substance used to initiate him into the life of the Church at his baptism, lay invisible and frozen on a stretch of road with one too many turns. Eric’s car hit the black ice and then a concrete pole.

The brain injury Eric sustained, just a week after his 17th birthday, was irreparable. Before the machines that kept him alive after the accident were removed, surgeons harvested four organs for families who had been waiting: hope against hope.

During the visitation, which had been delayed a few days due to the zenith of the Christmas feast, many of Eric’s friends gathered to cling to each other, to cry with one another, to support the family in the face of unseasonable death. The “undiscovered country” — remembered from sleepy English classes where Hamlet spoke in soliloquy — is now less remote but more barbed. The funeral Mass was well attended. Teenagers gathered to say a prayerful goodbye to their friend, whose coffin rested at the foot of the sanctuary. They were solemn and tearful.

Their communion of shared grief and shock revealed the sacredness of all life: fragile, poignant and celebratory. Most of them were not regulars at Sunday Mass. Few of them could explain the sacramental theology of the Eucharist. But they prayed. Like the Israelites in the desert, like the 5,000 on the hillside, like the 12 at the last supper, they were fed. Jesus was present, and Jesus healed.

Often we hear voices in the public square that are critical of Catholic education. Catholic schools are not Catholic enough, so the argument goes, because the educators who staff them and the students who attend them are not knowledgeable about the faith or do not practise with enough regularity. Here is the truth: Catholic schools are no longer filled with students of practising Catholic families. Today, Catholic education is a community of diverse families blundering through the frenetic pace of daily life seeking — as they are able — communion with divine mystery as revealed in Christ Jesus.

Catholic schools continue to be places where kids meet Jesus, but you have to look below the surface.

Watch kids when they need to pray. Watch kids against a landscape of grief, forced to ponder the stark reality of a 17 year old embraced — too soon — by the mystery of death. That one empty desk in each of Eric’s classes reminds all that his physical, incarnate self is gone.

Yet, just as Christians are called to see the cross in the wood of the manger, Eric’s classmates are now challenged to see the empty tomb in each desk that he should be occupying. Each empty desk is an invitation to hope against hope that death is not the last word, that Eric has been called out of this shadowy realm to a place of lovely clarity, that the Father’s house has many rooms, and that each room is an embrace of abundant love that brings wholeness and healing.

It is the shared ministry of all who serve in our school community to walk alongside Eric’s classmates in their grief. Our mission is to witness the presence of Jesus in our school. We do this by reminding our kids that Jesus too wept for His friend Lazarus, that with the eyes of faith we can see through the empty desk to an empty tomb, and that Christmas leads to Easter.

In these dark months, we have already turned the corner to longer days. Despite winter’s icy winds, we huddle together sharing a blanket narrative that begins in Bethlehem and ends outside Jerusalem. It is our great story. It reveals the power of God to heal all wounds in and through Jesus.

Our Catholic school communities continue to proclaim the Gospel to young people and their families. God is revealed in all the places where Jesus still teaches and heals.

(Olson is a vice principal at Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School in Guelph, Ont.)


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