LIFE LINE A life ring floats on the sea surrounding Lampedusa. Thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, fleeing war and hunger in their own countries, have made the arduous boat journey to the island’s shores, many not surviving. Pic: Flickr.com/Marco Molino
Fr Kevin Hegarty
James Plunkett’s story ‘Janey Mary’ is set in early 20th-century Dublin. Janey Mary’s family is poor. Her father is dead and her older brother is the only family wage earner. She is often sent out to beg food from her neighbours. He mother, embittered by poverty, scolds her harshly when she returns empty-handed, as she often does. The neighbours, poor themselves, are irritated by her frequent calls on their charity.
In school she is ridiculed by the teacher and her classmates. The only person from whom she experiences kindness is Fr Benedict of the local ‘Augustinian Friary’ who visits the school occasionally and encourages her to improve her attendance.
On the day of the Blessed Bread it was the tradition of the friars to distribute food to the monastery to bring some home. As she awaits the distribution a big impatient crowd gather around the small frail girl, causing her to fear for her safety. When the distribution starts, the crowd surges forward. In the melee Janey Mary falls and her bare feet are trampled by a man wearing hob-nailed boots.
She faints and is carried to the monastery where Fr Benedict attends to her. One of the priest’s colleagues asks if she is badly hurt. Fr Benedict replies, in a strange voice, “Only her feet … you can see the print of the nails.”
The story demonstrates that Calvary can be a living reality, not just a geographical place or an historical event.
The word ‘Calvary’ is a synonym for human suffering. The metaphorical road to Calvary runs through every community and many of our lives. Where people experience tragedy, oppression, humiliation and hunger there is Calvary. For the 20th-century Scottish poet, Sorley MacLeann, Calvary was “a foul-smelling backland in Glasgow, where life rots as it grows” and a “room in Edinburgh, a room of poverty and pain, where the diseased infant, writhes and wallows till death.”
The Pelagian island of Lampedusa, far off the coast of Sicily between Italy and Tunisia, is the scene of a contemporary Calvary. In the past decade, thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, fleeing war and hunger in their own countries, have sought sanctuary in Europe. They have travelled to Lampedusa, often having paid exorbitant fees to unscrupulous operators, on unseaworthy shops. Many have perished on their perilous journeys.
In October 2013, a vessel carrying 466 passengers caught fire near the island and over 300 died. The islanders took the survivors to a local church where they fed and clothed them. They gave their deceased a decent burial.
A local carpenter, Francesco Tuccio made one explicit connection between their suffering and Calvary. From the timber wreckage of the doomed ship he made 155 small crosses for each of the survivors. He made larger ones for community display.
He presented one of these to the British Museum. In its rough hewn state it looks incongruous amongst the museum’s array of richly decorated crucifixes. But it embodies the meaning of the Calvary story more effectively than its ornate counterparts.
Francesco started his prophetic ministry two years earlier. At Mass in his local church, he noticed a sad group of Eritrean migrants, weeping for family and friends whom they had lost on the journey to freedom.
After Mass, he went to the beach and collected the blistered driftwood of sunken ships that had washed up on the island. He said the wood smelt of ‘sea salt and suffering’.
From the material he made a big cross and asked his parish priest to place it on the altar to remind worshippers of the plight of the migrants. He offered every migrant he met a small cross as a symbol of their rescue and of hope for a better life.
In an interview with the BBC he said:
“The idea came as a flash. I decided to put my carpentry skills to good use and build a cross that would be a daily reminder of the shipwrecks. As a practising Catholic, I associate the cross with resurrection, a metaphor about migrants landing safely and beginning a new life in Europe. The wood I use represents death and tragedy but also hope, rebirth and Christian salvation.”
For Christians, Calvary is paradoxically a place of despair and of hope. What we profess is that Jesus, through the darkness of Calvary, triumphed over human tragedy, pain and death, not only for himself but for us. May those camped on Calvary now experience some illumination this Eastertide.