Bishop Nicholas delivered this homily at a Mass for the repose of the souls of 39 Vietnamese nationals who died in the back of a lorry in the UK in October 2019. He also offered words of condolence in his introduction to the Mass. The Mass of remembrance took place at the Church of the Holy Name and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Bow Common on Sunday 3rd November 2019. Bow Common parish is the home of the Vietnamese chaplaincy in London and holds Vietnamese Masses six days a week.
I’ve been wanting to come and be with you to let you know how much the Cardinal and the bishops of this Diocese have been thinking of you and praying for you ever since we heard of the tragic deaths of 39 Vietnamese in the back of a refrigerated lorry. I’ve come to offer Mass for the repose of their souls.
As we offer Mass for them we pray for all who mourn them. We pray for those who fear their relations were among the dead. We pray for the emergency services who recovered their bodies. Human trafficking is an abominable crime which needs to be eradicated. We pray for those who commit such crimes that they might, as a result of such a tragedy, have a change of heart. We begin our Mass, as we always do, by praying for a change of heart ourselves, as we confess our sins.
These are very consoling readings. And I want to say something about them shortly. But, before I do, I wish first to say something more about those who died in a refrigerated lorry two weeks ago. Each of them was a unique human being known eternally to God. We know almost none of their names; yet each one them is known to God. God knows their parents, their brothers and sisters, their dearest friends who will be bereaved once their identities are confirmed. He knows all those families in Vietnam who fear it is their child, their sibling, who perished in that lorry.
We know the name of one: Tra My; because it was she who sent that final, desperate message to her mother, saying, ‘Mum, I’m dying, I can’t breathe. I’m so sorry.’ We have seen her face in the media; we have felt, insofar as we can truly feel it, something of her family’s pain. May Tra My stand as a representative of every woman and man who died that night as we pray for the repose of their souls. We ask the Lord to forgive any sins they may have committed in this life; and to grant them now eternal rest; as we also pray for all who mourn them; for all the members of the emergency services who were so deeply, and understandably, affected by the sad, shocking discovery of so many dead; and we pray for ourselves; for this community; for all Vietnamese living in the U.K. We ask the Lord to be close to each one of them at this time.
The readings (I said they were consoling) encourage us in this prayer; encourage us to pray Jesus be close to us at this time, ‘make his home in us’ indeed. Jesus coming to us is the key, in fact, to understanding this story of Zacchaeus which we know so well. There are two things we should notice in this story: that Zacchaeus wishes to see Jesus and Jesus chooses to go to him.
‘Zacchaeus, come down’, he says. ‘Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.’ Zacchaeus is looking for him and Jesus comes.
Alongside this story we are given these words from the Book of Wisdom, ‘Your imperishable spirit is in all.’ ‘Your imperishable spirit is in all.’ God puts his spirit into every human being; and that spirit is an imperishable spirit, which lives on forever. It is our faith, our Catholic faith, that every man, woman and child is made in the image and likeness of God. The God who made us in in his image says to the heart of every person, ‘I want to stay with you; I want to stay at your house tonight.’ Not just to be with us but to suffer with us. It was to help us believe this that God chose to come among us in the person of Jesus.
Just how remarkable this was is brought home to us by another phrase we are given today from Wisdom. ‘In your eyes’, we hear the author tell God, ‘the whole world is like a grain of dust.’ The world is as small as a grain of dust. It makes me think of those photos you see of earth from outer space, our little planet floating far, far out in space. You see the earth indeed as small as a grain of dust. But strikingly, it’s a blue grain. Why? Because it has life; and, at its heart: human life.
It was to reassure, console and encourage human life that God, who had made this world, took on himself human life. He came not just to live among us (that would have been easy); he came to suffer with us, even to die with us. Because he knew that death, for any of us, is the thing that most frightens us. He chose to die the cruellest kind of death so that we can always say, whatever happens to us, Jesus died with us.
Our faith tells us he was present to, he suffered with, those who died in the container that night. You could even say, ‘he died with them’; as he will have been there to receive them on the other side of death. Because he is nothing if not the Good Shepherd; ‘near restful waters’, leading them to revive their traumatised spirits. And he walks faithfully alongside those whom they leave behind; he walks this journey of grief with them, consoling and encouraging them. All we need to say, all we need to find room for in our hearts, is to make the same act of faith as Zacchaeus and say: ‘Lord, let us see your face; come to be with us this day, especially with those who suffer most. Comfort those who mourn; grant deep eternal rest to all who died that day; and give strength to our nation, our community in this hour of deep grief.’
Published: 4th November 2019