In Paris, France for several days after Christmas to attend some meetings, I walked over to Place de le République on Tuesday afternoon this week to visit the memorial that was set up after the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015 in the French capital. Having heard of the site from several friends here, I did not imagine the size of the spontaneous memorial nor the huge crowds that I would find… many in prayer.
I spent an hour in the square Tuesday afternoon and saw hundreds of people moving quietly around the monument in the middle of the square - praying, kneeling, touching photos of those who were tragically killed on that November black Friday weeks before. There were adults praying the rosary, young people chanting some hymns from Taizé, Muslims bowing down on their prayer rugs, and tourists from many countries simply walking around the monument and taking photos. I saw signs asking that people remember not only those who died in France, but those who lost their lives in Beirut, Lebanon; in the Russian plane tragedy, in San Bernardino, California and several other places in the world.
I spoke with one of the young national police officers guarding the area. He told me that the crowds had not diminished over the past six weeks, and that there were even greater crowds down the boulevard in the 11th arrondissement, near the Bataclan theater that was site of the greatest loss of lives in the recent Paris attacks: eighty-nine people were massacred inside the theater that night. I made the 5-minute walk to that area and was very moved by what I saw. Hundreds of people walking in front of the Bataclan café and theater and hundreds more across the street walking before another spontaneous memorial. Many people continued to bring flowers, light small candles and leave personal messages. This memorial contained personal effects of many of those who lost lives: t-shirts and other articles of clothing, a bicycle belonging to one of the victims, stuffed animals, religious pictures, statues, and hundreds of personal messages written by school children around the world, letters from family members of those who lost their lives, and striking photos of those who died. So many were young adults who were enjoying themselves at a concert that night.
The whole sight left me with a deep feeling of loss, sadness, and bewilderment in this Octave of Christmas 2015.While neighboring Parisian stores and shops were packed with shoppers purchasing sale items to satisfy personal needs and pleasures, in Place de la République and at the Bataclan, many French citizens and hundreds of tourists were experiencing much emptiness, loss and fear. Terrorist activity is continually recurring in various parts of the world, plunging people into grief and despair. Those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison human relations and destroy trust and solidarity, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful life together.
To kill in the name of religion is not only an offence to God, but it is also a defeat for humanity. No situation can justify such criminal activity, which covers the perpetrators with infamy, and it is all the more deplorable when it hides behind religion, thereby bringing the pure truth of God down to the level of the terrorists’ own blindness and moral perversion.
ISIS and any form of terrorism in the name of God is an aberration of religion. ISIS’ manipulation and distortion of the massive refugee crisis to infiltrate terrorists into other countries is criminal and evil. We must distinguish between true religion and the twisted religion used to justify hatred and violence. True religion leads people to healing, peace, solidarity and desires to make the world a better place. True religion respects the sacredness and dignity of the human person. True religion invites people to respond to crises with mercy, charity and hospitality.
In Pope Francis’ Message for the 49th World Day of Peace (January 1, 2016) entitled “Overcome Indifference and Win Peace”, the Bishop of Rome writes:
2. Sadly, war and terrorism, accompanied by kidnapping, ethnic or religious persecution and the misuse of power, marked the past year from start to finish. In many parts of the world, these have became so common as to constitute a real “third world war fought piecemeal”. Yet some events of the year now ending inspire me, in looking ahead to the New Year, to encourage everyone not to lose hope in our human ability to conquer evil and to combat resignation and indifference. They demonstrate our capacity to show solidarity and to rise above self-interest, apathy and indifference in the face of critical situations.
5. This then is why “it is absolutely essential for the Church and for the credibility of her message that she herself live and testify to mercy. Her language and her gestures must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road that leads to the Father. The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ. The Church makes herself a servant of this love and mediates it to all people: a love that forgives and expresses itself in the gift of oneself. Consequently, wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident. In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.”
We too, then, are called to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one another. This requires the conversion of our hearts: the grace of God has to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, open to others in authentic solidarity. For solidarity is much more than a “feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far”. Solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all”, because compassion flows from fraternity.”
My visit to Place de la République and the Bataclan during the Octave of Christmas this year gave me much more than I ever anticipated. The Christmas story was brought to life in a stark and vivid way for me. Beyond the tinsel, glitter and shallowness of the commercial Christmas spirit, the unforgettable images of hundreds of people in mourning and shock reminded me of the importance of human solidarity that transcends all divisions, of compassion which heals deep wounds of loneliness and loss, and prayer to a God of mercy, peace and charity, which holds us all together when we are hurting and grieving.
By Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation