Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year 2018
CENTENARY OF THE SINKING OF THE RMS LEINSTER
Homily notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin
Pro-Cathedral, 21st October 2018
Exactly one hundred years ago to the day, my predecessor Archbishop William J. Walsh celebrated here in the Pro-Cathedral a Requiem Mass for the 564 people known to have lost their lives in the sinking of the RMS Leinster, torpedoed in the Irish Sea, some days earlier on 10 October 1918.
The sinking of the RMS Leinster remains as the greatest maritime tragedy in our history. The number of lives lost was horrendous. It came at a time in which the end of a terrible world war seemed to be approaching. It came at a time of widespread distress due to the flu epidemic that was raging at the time and caused concern about bringing people together even for funeral ceremonies due to the risk of infection.
One hundred years later, we gather here this morning to remember in prayer those who lost their lives. We remember those who mourn still today. We remember the horrors of war and we commit ourselves to the fostering of a culture of peace for the generations to come.
The disciples of Jesus were slow to learn. In the Gospel reading we have just heard, two of the disciples come to Jesus and ask for special privilege alongside him when he comes into his glory.
We know from other incidents in the Gospel that such thinking was not unusual among the disciples of Jesus. On more than one occasion, the disciples had discussed among themselves which of them should be looked on as the greatest.
The disciples, despite their closeness to Jesus, failed miserably to understand even what was most important in his teaching. They failed to understand what his glory meant and how he would come to his glory. They failed to grasp that in the logic of Jesus the greatest would be distinguished not by power or worldly glory, but through self-giving service.
Jesus himself would show the way by giving himself out of love for us even unto death. Jesus’ logic is different to the logic of the world and his power and authority are measured by a very different logic. Rather than making their authority felt through the exploitation of the weaker, for the disciples of Jesus greatness is to be attained only through making ourselves the slaves of the weakest.
One of the challenges of being a Christian is to understand and put that teaching into practice in a culture where power is looked on in very different terms: in terms of status or wealth or celebrity. It is a challenge for individual believers but also for the Church as institution. When the Church loses that sense of being called to selfless caring, it betrays itself through becoming authoritarian or indeed even a vehicle of abuse.
The same principle of power being there to serve applies to the relations between the peoples of the world and between states and governments. This is not a principle that you will find automatically or in such words in the texts of the principles of international relations, much less in the day-to-day relations between States.
History shows us however how tensions and wars between States and within States arise when one population group or one nation begins to feel that it is somehow superior to another and can assert this superiority not through genuine quality of life but in the use of power for self-serving means.
War is a street of no return that inevitably leads to disaster. I am not saying that in the complex reality of our world it may not be necessary on occasion to use force to halt the hand of an aggressor. But a cold analysis of wars leads us also to see that war takes on a logic of its own, in which political or power or economic ambitions become superior to the lives of the youngest and weakest, who are the ones called to be in the trenches and to experience the barbarities.
The history of the First World War is a history of noble idealism but also a history of horrific barbarities. Pope Benedict XV early in the war called it “un inutile strage”, a “useless massacre”. War inevitably leads to the hardening of hearts and the leaves of scars of trauma on all sides.
Any commemoration of a disaster like that which hit the RMS Leinster must lead all of us to commit ourselves to working to see that what happened should never happen again and what caused it to happen should never occur again. Lord, spare us from the tragedy of war.
There is a particular poignancy for us in Dublin to recall the sinking of the Royal Mail Ship Leinster. To those of my generation, “The Mail Boat” has a special significance and affection.
In times before Aer Lingus or Ryanair had become the common ways of transport, the Mail Boat had a special place in the sorrows and joys of the people of Dublin. For me it marked happy days as we set out on a family holiday. There was a special platform on the left of the then Westland Row Station from which a train would set out exclusively to the Mail Boat Pier in Dun Laoghaire. Seeing the Mail Boat was the start of a happy journey.
For me, like many other Dubliners, the Mail Boat was also the place of sad moments. I remember going to Westland Row as my father like so many others of the time headed off as an emigrant to seek work. For so many families the Mail Boat was something that belonged to the sadness of the economic life of the times. The Mail Boat was also the place from which many young boys and girls boarded even at a young age to seek a future in England in some sense being abandoned by their country.
This affection for the Mail Boat that played such a part in the lives of ordinary Dublin people adds to the sense of horror that comes to us as we remember the unprovoked attack of one hundred years ago. That sense remains today and is present here this morning as we remember victims, their relatives and friends and loved ones who were never again known.
Some would note that that the Leinster was carrying a large number of combatants and that this could seem a provocation. But who were these combatants? They were for the most part young Irish men who had fought bravely but who would much have preferred never to have had to enter into such a conflict. They may have been attracted by publicity about the fascination of war, but they could never have imagined the horrors they were going to experience on the battlefields. They were accompanied at Dun Laoghaire by the tears of those dear to them unsure that they would ever see one another again. War is always tragedy.
And one of the paradoxes of the sinking of the Leinster is that the German U-boat never made it back to Germany and was sunk in minefields. All on board were lost, mostly young men in their early twenties, many of whose mothers had also shed tears as their sons were forced to leave to fight someone else’s war. War is always tragedy.
Lord save us from the horrors of war. Let us remember in our prayers the many innocent men, women and children who die in our days exploited for the power interest of others. Spare our young people. Enlighten the hearts of world leaders who look on the sophisticated and ghastly instruments of modern warfare simply in terms of how they enrich an economy.
There is another irony in the story of the RMS Leinster. It was a mail boat; it had aboard a group of sorters who travelled back and forth facilitating the postal services between Ireland and Britain. A ship that served as a means of communication helping to bring people together in their joys and sorrows fell prey to the logic of war, a logic that sprung from a sense of one nation being superior to another.
Spare us Lord from the logic of war through heeding the logic of Jesus where greatness is found in loving service within the one human family. Grant to the 564 victims of the wartime tragedy of the torpedoing of the RMS Leinster eternal rest and peace and grant peace in our times.