29 November 2017

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.' Sunday Reflections, 1st Sunday of Advent, Year B

Young Jew as Christ, Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Jesus said to his disciples:

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Liam Whelan  (1 April 1935 - 5 February 1958)

If this is the end, then I'm ready for it

These were the last words of Liam Whelan who died in a plane crash at Munich Airport on 6 February 1958 along with other members of the Manchester United football (soccer) team as they were returning from a match in Belgrade. About seven years ago I learned from a friend named Brendan whom I have known for more than 50 years that, when they were both aged 14 or so, Liam rescued him when he got into difficulties in a swimming pool in their area. And last year I discovered that another friend, who was a classmate of mine for five years in secondary school and for two years in the seminary, also named Liam, that this talented young footballer had been a neighbour of his and that even when he had achieved fame as a professional footballer he would still play knockabout football on the street with the local boys whenever he would come home.

The average age of Manchester United's players at the time of the accident was only 22. These young men were earning only £15 a week, about 25 percent more than a tradesman could earn. Endorsements could bring in a little more income for a few talented players whose career would end for most at 35, if not earlier. 

There was snow on the ground at Munich Airport and the plane made three attempts to take off. Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper for Manchester United and who also played in that position for Northern Ireland's international team, was sitting near Liam Whelan. He survived uninjured and helped save a number of people from death. He has often told the story of Liam Whelan's last words: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.

Clearly young Liam had his life focused on what was most important. He was ready to meet death. I have often spoken about him at Mass and in giving retreats. 

Those who knew him describe Liam Whelan as 'a devout Catholic’. I know that he sent his mother some money for her to go to Lourdes. 11 February 1958 was the centennial of the first apparition of our Blessed Mother to St Bernadette. Mrs Whelan, a widow since 1943 when Liam was 8, used the money instead towards a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes over the grave of her son. I pass it each time I visit my parents’ grave.

Liam Whelan's grave (right)

I vividly remember the dark, late afternoon I heard about the crash from a street-singer whom I knew by sight and who was running around agitatedly telling people of the crash. I didn't know whether to believe him or not but the news on the radio confirmed that it really had happened. It was the first time in my life to experience what has been called a 'public-private moment', a public happening, usually a tragedy, that becomes a very personal one for those who learn of it, one that is seared in the memory and often in the heart.

Liam Whelan grew up in the next parish to my own and I remember going to Christ the King Church the evening his remains were brought there. I was outside the church with countless others. An article by John Scally in the February 2008 issue of The Word, the magazine of the Divine Word Missionaries in Ireland that is no longer published, described what many experienced: Their funerals were like no other. Most funerals are a burial of someone or something already gone. These young deaths pointed in exactly the opposite direction and were therefore the more poignant. Normally we bury the past but in burying Liam Whelan and his colleagues, in some deep and gnawing way we buried the future.

I still feel some pain at the deaths of Liam Whelan and his colleagues nearly 60 years after they died but the story of Liam's preparedness for his sudden death is one that continues to inspire me.

Liam's last words, If this is the end, then I'm ready for it, are a perfect response to today's gospel. Jesus is not trying to frighten us but he is telling us starkly to be prepared always for the moment of our death, to do everything with that in mind. Advent is a time when we prepare not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, but to become much more aware of his daily coming into our lives, and to prepare, as individuals and as a Christian community to welcome him when he returns at the end of time in a way that we won't be ashamed.

What would we say if he asked us in the Philippines where I spent most of my life, for example, Have children who have been abused had their court cases finished quickly? I have heard that young Maria, who has gone to the court five or six times for a hearing, something that is quite upsetting for her, has been told on each occasion that the defence lawyer isn't yet ready.

What would we say if Jesus said, I have been told that many forests have been cut down for profit and that this has resulted in many deaths in Leyte, for example, in 1991 and 2003. Is this true?

Tropical Storm Thelma (Uring) [Wikipedia]

More than 5,000 died in a flash flood in Ormoc City, Leyte, on 5 November 1991. Deforestation was blamed as a primary cause of the devastation.

The gospel this Sunday is, literally, a 'wake up call'. Beware, keep alert . . . Therefore, keep awake . . . And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

May the response of Liam Whelan, a young professional footballer who took these words to heart, inspire us and give us a desire to be always prepared to meet the Lord, in this life and in the next: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.

This was recorded on St Columban's Day, 23 November 2011, in the Abbey of St Columban, Bobbio, Italy, where the saint died and is buried.

Antiphona ad introitum  Entrance Antiphon  Cf Ps 24 [25]:1-3

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Ps 24 [24]:4. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstri mihi; et semitas tuas edoce me.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

The longer version is sung or recited when the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated.

[I have told the story of Liam Whelan on this blog a number of times before, originally here.]


Liam Hayden said...

Lovely story of Liam Whelan Sean.It's something we could use on our young adult conferences.
God bless ,,

Fr Seán Coyle said...

Thanks, Liam, and thank you too for looking after Fr Peter Fegan OP during his current visit to Dublin.