The light shines in the darkness...

There are some things which are best left unsaid. Because the moment you try to put them into words, something essential is lost and one is left with the nagging feeling that the words expressed do an injustice to the reality described. For example, we all know that love exists, but notwithstanding the efforts of humanity’s best poets and writers, no written word has ever managed to fully capture the essence of the reality we call love. Closer to home, Catholics truly believe that in the consecrated piece of bread, there is the real presence of Christ. But no theologian has ever or will ever manage to “explain” fully and exhaustively this central belief of the Catholic Church. It just seems that we lack the appropriate words to do justice to the most important things in our life.

This has been precisely my experience over the last two Christmases when I had the privilege of celebrating a vigil mass for those asylum seekers who were being held in one of Malta’s detention centres. Christmas is the feast of family and friends and here before me were people who had lost family and friends. Christmas is also the season of hope and joy and these were people who had been locked up for months in very difficult conditions and whose future was terribly uncertain. So it was with trepidation that I asked myself: How is it possible “to sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land”? (Psalm 137)

On Christmas Eve 2013, I celebrated Mass, accompanied by two other JRS team members, for a very small number of West Africans. The atmosphere was very subdued and heavy. No singing, no clapping, no sharing of prayers. The ambience was far from being “Christmassy”. And then, after receiving communion, two Nigerians spontaneously broke into a poignant rendition of “Mary’s boy child”. I’m not the emotional type, but I must admit that it was with great difficulty that I managed to pronounce the concluding prayers in an audible voice. In those few words, these men expressed all their sorrow and pain, but also their resilience and faith. They had “left their homelands with a suitcase full of fears and desires”[1]. Their arrival in Europe had not signified the end of their ordeal. And yet, their spirit was not completely broken.

A year later, the atmosphere was completely different.  Quite a crowd gathered for our vigil Mass and we even managed to set up a small JRS choir! And yet, just before celebrating Mass, I was still asking myself the same excruciating question: What can a person like me who lives comfortably surrounded by friends and family, say that is not offensive to people who have suffered and who are suffering so much? And once again, I who was supposed to be “leading” the celebration felt led by these brothers of ours as soon as they broke into a heart-felt rendering of various Christmas Carols. Apparently, for some people, it is possible to “sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign Land”.

How can we explain the resilience and faith of these people? I don’t have an answer to that question and I wonder if anyone will ever have one. I prefer to describe without explaining. I prefer to give testimony without fully understanding. What I did understand is that sometimes, when we look around us, we can easily be overwhelmed by darkness. Mass in detention has taught me that the light truly shines in the darkness and “the darkness has not overcome it”. (Jn 1, 5)
And where does our work at JRS come in all of this? I don’t think we can really bring hope to these people. I don’t think we can bring them light. They are the holders of light. They are the ones who hold the candle of hope. But the flame is weak and threatened by the winds of adversity and injustice. Our job is to be present to these people and let them share their light with us. Contrary to many other realities in our world, when light is shared no one ends up with less light. On the contrary, when light is shared, the light is brighter for everyone. By receiving their flame, the darkness of detention becomes a little less dark for them and our lives shine brighter. 

Fr Mark Cachia sj


[1] Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2015

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