Readers born before about 1960 will remember April 10, 1968—40 years ago on Thursday—when the Wahine sank at the entrance to Wellington Harbour below Star of the Sea convent and boarding school. Sister Margaret Jennings who lived there at the time writes:
The upper storey of the boys’ class room had a grand view of the inner entrance to the harbour and Steeple Rock. As they watched the drama below through the swirling mists and fogs they saw the badly stricken ship limp from the Barrett’s Reef where it had been stuck onto Steeple Rock where it was jammed. Suddenly Sister Paula who was watching, exclaimed, “My God, the ship’s keeling over.” And such was the horror of all watching that they immediately knelt down and said the rosary for the safety of all those on board the vessel, who had travelled north for the Easter break.
Sister Marie Gore, also living at Star of the Sea, remembers:
That night we could see the search lights over the sea looking for survivors. On the radio and TV we heard that 51 people had lost their lives. It seemed incredible that this could have happened in our ‘backyard’.
The boys in the ‘backyard’ knelt and prayed the rosary. They lived at a complex dedicated to Mary under an ancient and widely used title Stella Maris (Star of the Sea). The hymn of the same name is a prayer for travellers.
Where was Mary?
So where was our Wahine, our Star of the Sea, when the Wahine sank and so many travellers drowned? Why did the image of the ‘guiding star’ turn into ‘search lights’ for survivors?
There are two important questions here: first, why do Catholics pray to Mary when there is only one mediator between us and God, ie, Jesus Christ (1 Tm 2:5-6) and second, why does it seem that our prayers aren’t always answered?
Within Catholicism we have a belief called the Communion of Saints—the bond of friendship between all the baptised, living and dead. This means that the dead are still united with us in Christ.
Just as we honour the memory of dead family members and friends, so too we honour Mary and the saints who are friends of God. We do this by allowing their lives to inspire us; we try to imitate their discipleship; we thank God for their example and we praise God in their company at every Eucharist. We also invoke their intercession asking them to pray for us.
We don’t hesitate to ask the living to pray for us. For example, each Sister of Mercy in NZ has been asked to pray for a particular World Youth Day pilgrim over the next few months.
Now, because of the Communion of Saints, we can feel confident asking Mary as our friend and God’s friend—Pope Paul VI later described Mary as our sister—to take our needs to God. That’s why we often used to sing, ‘… Mother of Christ, star of the sea, pray for the wanderer, pray for me.’
I’m certain that when the boys at Star of the Sea knelt in prayer they weren’t worrying about the Communion of Saints or the number of mediators. They were doing what millions of Catholics have done for centuries in times of crisis.
When my mother died suddenly, we took our rosary beads off the hook on the lounge wall and one of my brothers began to lead us in the familiar words of the prayer that’s like ‘comfort food’—familiar, satisfying nourishment for stressful times.
There’s a certain ‘rosary rhythm’ that carries the pray-er along automatically and effortlessly. It’s something to do when your world is suddenly falling apart, as it was for the young boys watching the tragedy unfold below them.
Despite the fact that many passengers survived, 51 people drowned. Was Mary only half listening? Was God not powerful enough to save everyone? Was God even interested in what was happening in ‘our backyard’? The bible is filled with countless images of an all-powerful and all-loving God, so where was this God?
The simple fact is that suffering and tragedy ultimately remain a mystery as the Book of Job teaches us so well. They cannot be rationalised or explained away, denied or abolished. Rather they must be faced. Facing them takes us back to the Communion of Saints and in particular the bond among the living.
As Pope Benedict wrote at the end of his 2007 encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi:
With a hymn composed in the eighth or ninth century, thus for over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, the Mother of God, as “Star of the Sea”: Ave maris stella. Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope.
Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).
There were many ‘lights of hope’ on Seatoun beach that day and in the days following throughout the country: ‘true stars’, ‘people who have lived good lives’.
The outpouring of help amid personal and national grief was proof of this. As individuals, as communities and as a nation, people engaged creatively in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to alleviate the suffering.
By their very actions so many people showed that, like Mary, they could be ‘stars of hope’—concrete answers (although partial) to the prayers of the young boys at Star of the Sea.