Boston Strong: Grace under relentless pressure

The day after last Monday’s Boston marathon bombings, the former mayor who embodies the great big heart and soul of that great city was defiant and determined. They not only responded to the terror with great humanity that day he told me on Tuesday, they would come back stronger and in greater numbers for next year’s Patriot’s Day landmark event. Nobody could have yet known what the week would still hold for Bostonians, and how drained they would be by the end of it. But, thank God, it ended.

It began at the marathon’s finish line, where former Mayor Ray Flynn enjoyed the day with his daughter and grandchildren as an annual event that went back to his younger days of running the marathon himself, when his own children waited at the finish line. Several of his grandchildren were near the explosion, thankfully uninjured physically. But it took a toll on everyone in other ways, especially little children. His family’s story probably speaks for everyone’s in and around Boston in some way.

Ray Flynn wrote that “cowards with bombs tried to spread hate in our city. Our children — and my grandchildren — are answering with love.”  

Here’s his account:

Like 8-year-old Martin Richard, who can’t have been too far away in the crowd, they were eating an ice cream and enjoying a great event for kids. You look at the photos from that day, and the crowd is full of children.

Their innocent world took a sudden ugly turn when two deadly bombs exploded, and the streets were filled with the screams of terrified and injured people, and the sight of blood, people down, and people running.

I had been there earlier, but left before the blasts. When my daughter Maureen Foley called me, I raced back to Copley Square and found my grandkids running down the street with hundreds of other frightened people. The look on their faces was not something I ever want to see again.

They couldn’t stop crying, “Did anybody die, Papa?”

There were a lot of kids there, they told me. It was difficult to calm them down or even begin to try to explain how anybody could do such a cowardly thing.

The kids had a very difficult Monday night, still asking my daughter Maureen if any kids had died.

When they heard about Martin Richard, like everyone who heard that news, they were all very upset.

But kids believe in doing something, and it didn’t take long.

“Mommy, can we sell lemonade and cookies and give all the money to Martin’s family?” one of the kids said. “All my friends at school, all the kids who play sports with us will help us.”

They began texting their friends. Hundreds of calls and texts from young kids in their town, Braintree, began pouring in.

The result? (Friday, at a public school) in Braintree, you will see a lot of caring young children and their parents — love growing where cowards had hoped to plant hate.

The Braintree Patch, a local community newspaper, found out about it ahead of time and published this.

On Marathon Monday, the Foley family sat in the bleachers near the finish line, cheering on Uncle Patrick, who was running for CarePacks, an organization that sends basic necessities to our troops, when the bombs went off.

That’s just one more important aspect of all this to point out, that many runners participate in the grueling training and race itself on behalf of some charity. That’s a big part of the annual race and celebration.

Maureen Foley and her four children – Michael, 10, Ava and Julia, both 8, and Flynn, 5 – have decided to take that experience and turn it into a positive, helping raise money for the Richard family, who lost their 8-year-old son Martin in the attack. Martin’s mother and sister were both injured.

“Thank God they were unharmed physically, but to have witnessed such a horrific scene is devastating for anyone,” Foley said of her kids in an email. “They were determined that something positive was going to come out of this experience.”

The paper reported that the Foleys would have a lemonade stand in front of their school at mid-day Friday, “with all proceeds sent to the Richard family.”

“Please come by, show your Braintree pride, and let the Richard Family know that we share their pain,” Foley said.

Friday evening, Ray Flynn told me that over 2,000 people came and the children raised over $6,500 and donated it all to the Richard Family.

We talked about the message of his good friend Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Boston’s Archbishop, at the ‘Healing Our City’ interfaith service at the cathedral the evening before. It can be seen here on Cardinal Sean’s blog and is well worth viewing and hearing. Every bit of it.

He shared the message Pope Francis sent for the occasion.

The Holy Father prays that we will be united in the resolve not to be overcome by evil, but to combat evil with good, working together to build an ever more just, free and secure society for generations to come.

And Cardinal Sean said the horror of “an act of senseless violence that has caused all of us great shock and pain” was “a start reminder of the darkness that can lurk in the human heart and produce such evil. ”

And yet the same tragedy brought us together as a community like nothing else ever could. The generous and courageous response of so many assures us that there resides in people’s hearts a goodness that is incredibly selfless. We saw that when summoned by great events we can be remarkably committed to the well-being of others, even total strangers. We become a stronger people, a more courageous people, and a more noble people.

So much of this brief reflection Cardinal O’Malley gave spoke deeply to the way we live our public lives in America today, and Ray Flynn recalled growing up when messages like his were in the air he and his siblings breathed, the Fulton J. Sheen messages about sacrifice, prayer, pride. What Patriot’s Day has always represented, though the culture has gone off that track over time.

This Patriots’ Day shakes us out of our complacency and indifference and calls us to focus on the task of building a civilization that is based on love, justice, truth and service. We do not want to risk losing the legacy of those first patriots who were willing to lay down their lives for the common good. We must overcome the culture of death by promoting a culture of life, a profound respect for each and every human being made in the image and likeness of God, and we must cultivate a desire to give our lives in the service of others.

He had just returned from the Holy Land and referred to the Sermon on the Mount they had reflected on while in Galilee, which was recalled in prayer at the interfaith service last Thursday. And Cardinal Sean made a strikingly good point right then.

Often in the Gospels, we can see the contrast between the crowd and the community. The crowd is made up of self-absorbed individuals, each one focused on his or her own interests in competition with the conflicting projects of others. A community is where people come to value each other, and find their own identity in being part of something bigger than themselves, working together for the common good.

This is such a good message for us now. No matter what faith or creed of those assembled at that service or any of us considering these words, people of goodwill would probably agree…

The Sermon on the Mount, in many ways, is the Constitution of the people called to live a new life. Jesus gives us a new way to deal with offenses, by reconciliation. Jesus gives us a new way to deal with violence, by nonviolence. He gives us a new way to deal with money, by sharing and providing for those in need. Jesus gives us a new way to deal with leadership, by drawing upon the gift of every person, each one a child of God.

This is a soft and gentle challenge, or an encouragement if you will.

In the face of the present tragedy, we must ask ourselves what kind of a community do we want to be, what are the ideals that we want to pass on to the next generation. It cannot be violence, hatred and fear. The Jewish people speak of Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world.” God has entrusted us with precisely that task, to repair our broken world. We cannot do it as a collection of individuals; we can only do it together, as a community, as a family. Like every tragedy, Monday’s events are a challenge and an opportunity for us to work together with a renewed spirit of determination and solidarity and with the firm conviction that love is stronger than death.

He ended with the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi known as the ‘peace prayer,’ and Ray Flynn laughed when he told me that somebody in the media remarked to him afterward “what a wonderful speech Cardinal Sean gave about peace.” Flynn enjoyed heartily that the media person had no idea those were the words of the famous Franciscan priest. The saint, in fact, who inspired the current pope to take his name.

It was probably the best laugh Ray Flynn had all week, and possibly the only one. It was “relentlessly unnerving,” in the apt words of the Washington Post. One of the little girls at the lemonade stand was wearing a ‘Boston Strong’ T-shirt, already out before week’s end. That was the rallying cry of the week, and remains so.

And the week ended with Cardinal Sean calling for reconciliation.

“Forgiveness is part of our obligation as disciples of the Lord,” O’Malley said. “It’s only a culture of life and ethic of love that can rescue us from a culture of violence.”…

Richard Paris, 54, a Boston firefighter and president of Local 718, came with his wife, Eileen Paris, 53, and their son, Michael Paris, 14. The family had many friends, including first responders who were on the scene when the bombs went off.

Both husband and wife said O’Malley’s message hit home and reminded them of the importance of faith and compassion — even for the suspects.

“The world’s got to get on one page,” Richard Paris said.

Boston has started writing it, eloquently.

Another senseless act of violence: Boston marathon

Acts of violence never make sense, no matter how this one turns out to be explained. Every one of these random attacks assaults our sensibilities and rattles whatever semblence of security we still have in our daily lives. We can’t live in fear, so soon after these things happen, we go back to busy life as usual. But with a little more dis-ease. What else can we do?

Among my first thoughts is that we compartmentalize violence. What I was going to blog on today first is the ongoing trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, and I’ll get to that, because it’s major news and the media finally realized that (because they were forced to…more on that to come). What has that to do with Monday’s bombs in Boston?

Answer a question with a question: How do we view humanity? Last week was the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth. It talks about order in the universe, order in human beings, rights, duties, responsibilities, truth, justice, charity and freedom. And God.

Pope Benedict often warned societies today that we are living ‘as if God did not exist.’ There are consequences to that, whether individuals believe in God or not. In the absence of a moral code, whose values are any better for people in communities and socieities than any others?

Pacem in Terris says the foundation for order in society…

…is truth, and it must be brought into effect by justice. It needs to be animated and perfected by men’s love for one another, and, while preserving freedom intact, it must make for an equilibrium in society which is increasingly more human in character.

Love for one another? How are we doing with that? A society that’s increasingly more human in character?

But such an order—universal, absolute and immutable in its principles—finds its source in the true, personal and transcendent God. He is the first truth, the sovereign good, and as such the deepest source from which human society, if it is to be properly constituted, creative, and worthy of man’s dignity, draws its genuine vitality…This is what St. Thomas means when he says: “Human reason is the standard which measures the degree of goodness of the human will, and as such it derives from the eternal law, which is divine reason . . . Hence it is clear that the goodness of the human will depends much more on the eternal law than on human reason.”

How much less does the global community depend on “the eternal law” and more so on reason informed by one’s own lights?

Anyway, this is also the anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s  ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, which also quoted  Thomas Aquinas.

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

What does this have to do with the violence in Boston? Probably the disregard for the life of human beings, even children, women, the elderly, anybody in the area of the bombs. Anybody who is the ‘Other’ from whoever set the bombs to kill and maim.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, Alisdair Conn, chief of emergency services, said: “This is something I’ve never seen in my 25 years here … this amount of carnage in the civilian population. This is what we expect from war.”

Conversely, Monday was also the 101st anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. How is that related? Catholic priest Fr. Thomas Byles was on board and offered the chance to escape on one of the lifeboats several times. He refused, determined to stay on deck to administer last rites to the doomed passengers, assuring his own fate to go down with them.

Terrible things happen. We can’t live in fear. When it’s an act of terror, that’s just what attackers target and how they succeed. I read several news stories on the AP, Reuters, CNN, like this one in the WSJ that talked about the elaborate increased security plan the federal government swiftly put in place after the bombings in Boston. Airspace was shut down over key areas, the security perimeter around the White House was widened and tightened, people were urged to stay in their Boston homes and hotels and colleges in the immediate vicinity cancelled classes for at least 24 hours, and of course that’s understandable.

But it’s also likely what attackers intended.

As the details about the bombings in Boston unfold, it’d be easy to be scared. It’d be easy to feel powerless and demand that our elected leaders do something — anything — to keep us safe.

It’d be easy, but it’d be wrong. We need to be angry and empathize with the victims without being scared. Our fears would play right into the perpetrators’ hands — and magnify the power of their victory for whichever goals whatever group behind this, still to be uncovered, has. We don’t have to be scared, and we’re not powerless. We actually have all the power here, and there’s one thing we can do to render terrorism ineffective: Refuse to be terrorized.

It’s hard to do, because terrorism is designed precisely to scare people — far out of proportion to its actual danger. A huge amount of research on fear and the brain teaches us that we exaggerate threats that are rare, spectacular, immediate, random — in this case involving an innocent child — senseless, horrific and graphic. Terrorism pushes all of our fear buttons, really hard, and we overreact.

But our brains are fooling us. Even though this will be in the news for weeks, we should recognize this for what it is: a rare event. That’s the very definition of news: something that is unusual — in this case, something that almost never happens.

“Don’t be afraid.” It’s a message repeated throughout the Bible, and even before Jesus Christ repeated it often. Those were the first words of Pope John Paul II when he emerged after election by the college of cardinals to a world that didn’t know him. It’s spoken often by loving clergy and lay ministers and kindly village elders and family members and friends, to calm and to soothe. No one can take from you your peace. But you first must have it.

Pacem in Terris. Peace in the world starts with peace in your own heart.