New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – When compassion replaces judgement

This past week has left me with a very heavy feeling, a sadness which could be linked to a Seasonal-Affective Disorder. “SAD” is a depression caused by insufficient winter sunshine — in other words, too many gloomy, gray January days. With further insight, I determined my SAD was caused by too many gloomy, gray headlines.

If the shocking Washington insurrection, fears around new Covid-19 variant strains and the looming shortage of vaccines were not sufficient to make anyone feel depressed, I can now add the January 12th report of The Irish Commission into the appalling numbers of infant deaths within so-called Mother-Baby Homes over that country’s past history.

Until recently, Ireland was a religiously-conservative nation, where sexual behaviour was rigidly defined and proscribed by the Catholic Church. Unmarried pregnant women and girls as young as 12 were typically “hidden away” during pregnancy and their babies subsequently left in the care of one of these 14 homes or the four comparable county institutions scattered across the land.

The Irish Commission was established six years ago after an explosive scandal where bodies of babies were discovered in unmarked graves and many infants were buried without proper records of their deaths. The Commission’s report consumed 2,865 pages. It noted that an estimated 56,000 women and girls and 57,000 babies were residents of the homes between their establishment in 1922 and final closures in 1998. Fifteen per cent of all institutionalized babies died there.

Irish Prime Minister, Michael Martin, rightly condemned these revelations as “… a dark, difficult shameful chapter …”.  As a minister, I have occasionally encountered situations that reluctantly cause me to agree with Martin’s conclusion about the response of some Christians to those caught up in wrong behaviours. In reviewing the Commission Report, the Prime Minister described religious attitudes which reflected,    ” … judgmental, moral certainty and perverse religious morality.”

During this same gloomy seven-day period, yet another headline caught my attention. This one described how Canada’s Supreme Court had just denied an appeal by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s, Nfld. The Archdiocese tried to challenge a prior decision which held it legally responsible for rampant sexual abuse of boys incurred at Mt. Cashel orphanage during the 1950s by The Christian Brothers.

These headlines will create even greater interest in Emma Donoghue’s latest novel ‘The Pull of the Stars’ (Harper Avenue, 2020) This Irish-born writer now resides in London, Ontario. Best known for her award-winning and claustrophobia-inducing thriller, Room, the author also specializes in historical fiction. Her work is always meticulously researched, bringing her readers on scene.

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In Donoghue’s work, Nurse Julia Power cares for patients in a Dublin hospital during the last year of World War One. Her tiny, overcrowded Maternity/Fever ward houses several pregnant women, affluent and poor, who are now sharing in cramped isolation because they are also victims of a new highly contagious pandemic sweeping through the country – Spanish Flu, “that killed more people than the First World War … an estimated 3 to 6 per cent of the human race.”

When a young volunteer arrives to assist Nurse Power, the lives of both women are transformed over the following three hectic days of providing care to their distressed patients. Bridie Sweeney is an uneducated girl without family, who has been harshly raised in a nearby Catholic orphanage. Her innate intelligence, endless compassion and intense desire to learn about patient care is a classic example of human resilience and strength despite adverse conditions.

These two young women also present evidence of a much more positive version of Christian faith. Their sacrificial level of patient care under appalling conditions replaces judgment with compassion. People of faith and church leaders from all denominations have increasingly moved toward that model of lifestyle. All one needs to do is to take that well-known question often ridiculed by comedians: “What would Jesus do?” and try to answer it honestly.

The novel poignantly describes negative attitudes toward “illegitimate pregnancies” prevalent during much of history. With her single storyline set a hundred years in the past, Donoghue has somehow anticipated both the shocking Report of the Irish Commission and the current ravages of Covid-19. Readers will easily identify parallels with this week’s gloomy headlines.

As I am proofreading this column early on Saturday, the morning sun has made a surprising appearance over our town’s Huron-blue water tower. Like January’s weather, there is always the promise of brighter days ahead.

In the ‘Pull of the Stars’, a reader will find similar reason for hope, a belief that the human spirit is stronger than the depressing darkness of orphanages and pandemics … and gloomy, gray January days.