Anthony Cleary: The Cross and Christian discipleship

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Mounreners bear framed photos of the Abdallah children. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

From time to time we have moments in life that we describe as ‘life-changing’.

These experiences commonly involve places we visit and people we meet.

They are powerful moments of encounter that prompt us to reflect on life and its ultimate meaning.

We are changed by them – seeing ourselves, others and the world somewhat differently.

Recently, I had such an experience.

Few Australians would be unaware of the tragic ‘Oatlands’ accident that claimed the lives of four young children earlier this year, three young siblings and their cousin.

Shock and grief was laid bare, both on our mainstream news coverage and on social media.

What was not laid bare however, were expressions of anger and hatred.

Today’s all too common ‘community outrage’ was absent, replaced by deep reflection and the sincere desire to honour life.

This, perhaps, was only made possible by the public witness of three extraordinary Australians – Danny and Leila Abdallah, and Bridget Sakr, parents of the young children whose lives were cut tragically short.

Anthony Cleary
Director of religious education and evangelisation for Sydney Catholic Schools Anthony Cleary.

The nature of the tragedy, and their reaction to it, struck a deep chord with the wider community.

There was an outpouring of grief that extended well beyond the immediate families and their closest friends.

Strangers were united in grief as they mourned the loss of Antony, Angelina and Sienna Abdallah and Veronique Sakr.

In the most difficult of times, Danny, Leila and Bridget did not focus on the nature of the senseless accident, but on their sincere belief that God was present – even in the midst of their terrible suffering.

Their words were not used to attack the driver, but to honour the lives of their children.

Their example provided a moral compass for us all during this time.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet these extraordinary people and share time with them. I was truly blessed.

Not only are Danny, Leila and Bridget people with a remarkably deep and inspiring faith – they also give witness to what it means to be human in a profound way.

They offer sincere reflection on the great and enduring questions about life and death, the nature of suffering, belief in God, and our personal search for meaning.

While I have been a teacher for 30 years, in this instance I was the student and they were the teachers. There were many lessons to be learned.

At a time when many within our society would like God relegated to the ‘private sphere’, Danny, Leila and Bridget put God firmly in the ‘public square’.

The bereaved Abdallah and Sakr parents followed Veronique Sakr’s hearse on foot as it left the chapel after her funeral. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Their message was unambiguous – don’t give up on God. God is with us in the reality of life, and from time to time life is very messy.

But God is there, and our faith should not wane. This is a welcome counter-cultural message.

Equally so, was their call for forgiveness.

Many of us become consumed by petty grievances, and find it hard to let go, and hard to forgive.

Despite their pain, they have reached out with a message of forgiveness.

This example challenges all of us to question our own hardness of heart.

The nature of the tragic accident cast Danny, Leila and Bridget in the spotlight, as people from all walks of life have sought to hear their story.

They have not sought out these opportunities – but they have also not shied away from them.

The retelling of the events of 1 February, and the months that have passed since then, has been painful – but it has also helped the process of healing. Healing, but never closure.

While speaking about the loss of their children, Danny, Leila and Bridget also proudly point to the lives of their other children – Liana, Alex and Michael Abdallah and Michael Sakr.

In the midst of their pain, both families recognise that life has not ended – it has been irreparably altered – but it has not ended.

They rejoice in the lives of all of their children.

Meeting Danny, Leila and Bridget was an epiphany, a truly ‘life-changing’ experience. It reminded me that the Cross is inseparable from Christian discipleship.

Their lives give witness to faith, hope and love, and they provoke a clear question for each of us – ‘how can I live the life God wants for me’?