The true test of character is how it performs under pressure. Over the past week the character of Christianity was on full display through the people of Humboldt, Sask., as they responded to the tragedy that has shaken the nation.
The town’s response to the bus crash had a divine imprint on it from the start. Father Joseph Salihu, pastor of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Humboldt, said as soon as word of the accident spread across town, all the town’s clergy headed straight to the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos.
“We just stayed with the people and waited,” he said. “We were there all together, and that is what gave us the idea to organize (Sunday night’s) vigil.”
On Divine Mercy Sunday, Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen told the congregation at Holy Family Cathedral, “We don’t know why tragedy and disaster comes, but we do know the One who holds us throughout that tragedy, and we celebrate today that the One who holds us is One of Mercy.”
A few hours later, after the community vigil in Humboldt, the truth of what Bishop Hagemoen said was apparent.
The community gathered at the arena to honour the victims of the fatal bus accident two days earlier. The event came as close to a praise and worship service as it’s possible to have in a shrine built for hockey.
The religious nature of the vigil was perhaps influenced by the tight timeline. With just 48 hours to plan it, organizers had no time to do anything but to logically put God at front and centre of the event. It was a place for mourning, but also for hope.
Opening remarks by Rev. Matteo Carboni, vice-chair of the Humboldt Ministerial Association, set the tone for the evening by quoting John 16. “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy,” said the St. Andrew’s Anglican minister who led the service.
Humboldt Broncos team pastor Sean Brandow echoed Bishop Hagemoen’s words of being mystified and heartbroken. He addressed the two questions on everyone’s mind: Why did this happen? And where was God?
The first question can only be answered by God. As for the second – where was God? – Brandow quoted Psalm 23, said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted. And he saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
He reminded the thousands in the arena that we do not have a God who is unfamiliar with suffering. “He suffered grief, he has wept, he has been betrayed by a friend, he has felt alone, he has felt lost, he wept in the garden, knowing what he needed to go through the next day. But the fact of the matter is God didn’t stay dead.”
His words and his candor at not having all the answers left an impression on the Sportsnet broadcasters commenting on the service. “I want to be part of his church,” confessed Martine Gaillard.
“Put me in his congregation,” said co-host Darren Millard, struck by the honesty of a man of God who “stands out there and he can’t explain it, and he was honest…”
Just a week after Easter, we struggle to find something that helps us understand what happened and why, and only Christianity comes close. Which is why journalists obligingly quoted bishops, priests, and ministers as media also tried to make sense of what happened.
Bishop Hagemoen reflected on the faith and hope that emerged from the vigil. “The experience of the prayer vigil in Humboldt was like light shining through great darkness. The community gathered was led by various community and faith leaders through a reflection of acknowledging great pain, but also striving to embrace hope.”
“That hope was very present through the many people gathered, holding family and community members with great compassion and care,” said Bishop Hagemoen. “Although this crisis will be with the community for a long time, they will make it through this time of darkness because of such prayer and caring.”
Sportsnet’s Gaillard acknowledged as much in her closing words: “In the horrible darkness that this accident has produced, there is light.” We see it in the humanity and kindness of individuals who have responded, from prayers, to outreach, to millions of dollars collected to support the survivors and their families.
Father Salihu said, “Coming together tonight is a powerful sign that these families are not alone in their anguish. We need to remember that, after the funerals, these people will still need our presence.” Indeed, the entire community will, from the victims, to their loved ones, to the healers and first responders, and even to those who may ultimately be found responsible for the accident.
Regardless of how it unfolds, as the people of Humboldt continue to deal with the aftermath, they can be certain the God of Mercy is with them.