Tragedy in Boston: How We Can Respond From Distant Places

As the tragedy in Boston unfolded yesterday, it felt close and far away at the same time.

Close because of photos and cell-phone videos and Facebook posts  from friends who were nearby when the bombs exploded. (“I’m safe. Thank you for the prayers. Keep praying.”)

Far away because, well, Boston is a six-hour drive from South Jersey. I heard no blast, saw no smoke. My day continued more or less as usual, capped off by an evening work meeting.

This morning, I thought of Auden’s brilliant poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” in which he reflects on Pieter Bruegel’s 1560 painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” (From Greek mythology: Icarus tries to escape from Crete using wings made of wax and feathers that his father Daedulus made. He ignored instructions to not fly too close to the sun. The wax melted, and he fell into the sea. It’s a myth about hubris. Bruegel paints a typical landscape scene, and it’s easy to miss Icarus’ leg sticking out of the water, in the lower right corner.)

Auden writes:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

When faced with unimaginable suffering that doesn’t affect us directly, how can we resist the temptation to “sail calmly on”, to turn away “quite leisurely from the disaster”? As people of faith, how can we respond?

The Catholic social teaching principle of solidarity provides insight here. A major theme in the writings of Pope John Paul II, he describes it beautifully in his encyclical On Social Concern:

“(Solidarity) is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

The oneness of the human family that is at the heart of the principle of solidarity has roots in St. Paul’s letters, in which he writes often and famously that we are all part of the one Body of Christ. This unity has implications. From 1 Corinthians 12: “If one part [of the body] suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

So as many parts of the Body of Christ suffer today in Boston (and in Iraq and Syria and Venezuela and Pakistan and in more and more places), we are called to suffer with them. (The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.”)

Here are a few ways (of many) to stand in solidarity with those in need, across state or national borders:

Pray. Pray for those who have died and their families; for those wounded; for those in shock; for the first responders; for whoever detonated the bombs. Pray that we might instruments of God’s peace. If we believe that prayer changes things, then this is our first job. Turn off the TV, the computer, and your phone. Be quiet for a few minutes. Pray alone or gather friends and family. Attend a daily Mass.

Give, especially money and blood. Contribute to Boston’s Catholic Charities, which responds to immediate needs in Massachusetts communities. Give blood — if not for victims of yesterday’s violence, for someone else who will need it down the road.

Use symbol. When words come up short, symbolic action can be powerful. Like this walk from Boston College to Boston, or this front page of the Chicago Tribune‘s sports section:

On a smaller scale, post a reflective photo on Facebook. Today is the sixth anniversary of the massacre at Virginia Tech, and a friend of mine who went to VT made this his profile picture today:


If you are a runner, sign up for a race and make your run a prayer offering. If not, attend Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run on May 5 and cheer on the racers, asserting by just being there your belief that there is more good on Earth than evil.

Whatever you do to stand in solidarity with the suffering, spend some intentional time in reflection today, and do something. Our belief in the oneness of the human family demands nothing less.


  1. Joanne Di Gennaro

    Thanks, Mike, for your powerful posting. The image of Icarus will forever stay with me, just as Robert Frost’s lines in his poem “Out, Out” about the people in a wood yard, working with a boy who dies after his hand is accidentally cut off: “And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Dear God, help me to not sail quietly on.

  2. Mike Morgan

    Excellent focus on compassion and solidarity. When you are experiencing a tragedy of this scale, what gets you through is other people- those close to you and strangers alike. The compassion of a stranger- their choice to participate in your suffering voluntarily- is a powerful act. I wish April 16, 2007 was the last time violence like this occured, but sadly it continues, and wherever it happens we must show compassion- chosing to participate and not ignore. Prayer is important, and so are simple words to those going through it.

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