During a news conference on Thursday, Jeremy Hernandez recalls the horror on the school bus during the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
Mercy in the Day's Headlines
By David Came (Aug 7, 2007)
It was Friday evening, Aug. 3. It had been a stressful work week for me — on deadline for the magazine that I edit for the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. So I decided to treat myself by picking up a copy of The New York Times, which contains the kind of in-depth coverage on the day's news that I really enjoy reading.
Well, imagine my surprise when I saw mercy writ large in the day's headlines right on the front page.
Let me explain. The Times was reporting on the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 2, which has stunned the nation and raised serious concerns about the safety of our highways and bridges. Of course, the immediate concern in the day's news was about the 20 to 30 people who remained missing after the collapse of the bridge, as well as the five confirmed deaths.
My initial reaction was one of great sadness and concern for the victims and their families, as well as concern for the safety of our nation's bridges.
Then, as I scanned the page, I noticed the feature story with the headline: "Stunned Victim Turns Hero in Busful of Children." There was a photo alongside the story of a man named Jeremy Hernandez.
Jeremy Hernandez on the Bus
As I started to read the story of his act of heroism, my mood changed to joy over this Good Samaritan. I couldn't help but think of a column that I wrote for this website a couple months ago. It was about Pope Benedict XVI's new book, Jesus of Nazareth, and I was sharing the Holy Father's stunning mercy insight on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me share the essentials of Ellen Barry's feature story in the Times about Jeremy Hernandez. Then I'll get back to Pope Benedict's insight:
By the time they reached the Interstate 35W bridge, the children on the bus were waterlogged and serene, some still in their bathing suits, ready to go home. It was a rare moment of quiet, and as the bus crossed over the Mississippi River a few of the counselors, barely out of adolescence themselves, had dropped off to sleep in their seats.
What happened then is difficult to describe, even a day later. Angi Haney, a counselor, realized first that she was not in her seat, and then that she was not touching any part of the bus, and then that "we were all just flying in the air." T.J. Mattson, a 12-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses, looked out a window and saw water on the other side. Dust filled the bus, blotting out its passengers.
And then they came to rest. Jeremy Hernandez, the whip-thin 20-year-old who works as the summer program's gym coordinator, remembers time seemed to congeal. Then something broke the spell, and his heart began pounding, and he jumped over two rows of seats and kicked open the back door. He remembers coolers flying, and he remembers passing along children to strangers lined up like a bucket brigade.
"I just acted," Mr. Hernandez said Thursday. "I just moved. My feet were just moving. My body was following."
The people gathered at the Waite House, the center in the Phillips neighborhood that sponsored the bus trip, were shocked, but their shock was mixed with joy. Of the 61 children and others in the school bus who plunged along with the bridge, only 14 required hospitalization, and 10 of those were quickly released. None died.
Notice how this Good Samaritan simply acted to save lives at that chaotic moment on board the bus. He didn't stop and analyze the situation.
The Good Samaritan on the Road
Keep that in mind, as we turn to Pope Benedict's insight on Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37), which I developed in my column.
A man has just been robed and beaten, and he is lying by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road. Will anyone stop to help?
Pope Benedict picks up the narrative here, writing:
And now the Samaritan enters the stage. What will he do? [Unlike the expert in the law who has just been questioning Jesus] he does not ask how far his obligations of solidarity extend. Nor does he ask about the merits required for eternal life. Something else happens: His heart is wrenched open. The Gospel uses the word that in Hebrew had originally referred to the mother's womb and maternal care. Seeing this man in such a state is a blow that strikes him "viscerally," touching his soul. "He had compassion" — that is how we translate the text today, diminishing its original vitality. Struck in his soul by the lightning flash of mercy, he himself now becomes a neighbor, heedless of any question or danger. The burden of the question thus shifts here. The issue is no longer which other person is a neighbor to me or not. The question is about me. I have to become the neighbor, and when I do, the other person counts for me "as myself."
In this light, can't we say that Jeremy Hernandez was "struck by the lightning flash of mercy" when "time seemed to congeal" and he knew what he had to do? Just as the Samaritan stopped by the side of the road to aid the seriously injured man who had been robbed and beaten, so Mr. Hernandez "jumped over two rows of seats" on the bus and "kicked open the back door" to save the lives of his fellow passengers. That same merciful response led him to pass along "children to strangers lined up like a bucket brigade."
Saint Faustina at the Convent Gate
As I considered all this on Friday evening, I thought, too, of the inspiring example of St. Faustina as a Good Samaritan in less dramatic circumstances. (It is recorded in The Divine Mercy Message and Devotion booklet by Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC.) A poor young man, barefoot and with his clothes in tatters, came to her convent gate where she served as a doorkeeper. It was a cold and rainy day, and the poor man was begging for hot food.
Sister Faustina immediately went to the kitchen, but she found nothing there for him. She finally succeeded in finding some soup, which she reheated and into which she crumbled some bread. After the young man ate the soup, He revealed to her that He was the Lord Jesus in disguise!
Notice how Sr. Faustina immediately acts to serve the Lord Jesus under His distressing disguise. She goes to the kitchen to find something for the poor, hungry man. Even more, when she finds nothing, she continues her search for some hot food for him. She, too, is "struck by the lightning flash of mercy" and then isn't deterred from serving someone in desperate need when she encounters an obstacle.
What about the Rest of Us?
But these stirring examples of Good Samaritans are not the end of the story. When I got back to my office on Monday, Aug. 6, a nagging question remained: How can we as Christians prepare ourselves to respond as Good Samaritans in the concrete circumstances of our own lives? How can we respond like the Good Samaritan on the road, St. Faustina at the convent gate, and Jeremy Hernandez on the bus?
I cracked open Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth and found my answer in his concluding remarks about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After talking about the how the Doctors of the Church understood the parable and the views of medieval theology, he writes:
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho thus turns out to be an image of human history; the half-dead man lying by the side of it is an image of humanity. Priest and Levite pass by; from earthly history alone, from its cultures and religions alone, no healing comes. If the assault victim is an image of Everyman, the Samaritan can only be the image of Jesus Christ. God Himself, who for us is foreign and distant, has set out to take care of His wounded creature. God, though so remote from us, has made Himself our neighbor in Jesus Christ. He pours oil and wine into our wounds, a gesture seen as an image of the healing gift of the sacraments, and He brings us to the inn, the Church, in which He arranges our care and also pays a deposit for the cost of that care. ...
The great theme of love, which is the real thrust of the text, is only now given its full breadth. For now we realize that we are all "alienated," in need of redemption. Now we realize that we are all in need of the gift of God's redeeming love ourselves, so that we too can become "lovers" in our turn. Now we realize that we always need God, who makes Himself our neighbor so that we can become neighbors.
So, the real key to remaining ever available to serve others in need is recognizing that we ourselves always need God. Further, we must recognize that God has met that need by sending His Only Son, Jesus, who now cares for us through the Church. He is the Good Samaritan par excellence.
Only in Him and His Church will we find the healing and mercy we need, so we can then share that love and mercy with others in need. Only then will we be empowered to become neighbors in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, on the road, and wherever life leads us.
If we stay connected, then, to our Merciful Savior and His Church, we too will find opportunities — large and small — to be "struck by the lightning flash of mercy."
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.