AT Church on Sunday the current situation in Poland was mentioned in the intercessory prayers. The congregation duly listened, perhaps murmured in agreement with the sentiment shared by the reader, and then said Amen. The service proceeded, with a sermon on a scripture from John's gospel. But after the sermon, before the service could continue as planned, something happened - something unusual, I suspect, for most church services: spontaneity.
A member of the congregation stood up, acting peculiar. She went up to the man who had just given the sermon, asking for the pastor. When she found the pastor she said she needed to pray, so on his invitation she went to the front of the hall and addressed everybody. In tears, she explained.
We had prayed earlier for Poland. This, she said, was not enough. In tears she emotively and dramatically described the situation. Here was a nation that had suffered immense tragedy. In 1940, 20,000 Polish officers were murdered by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in the silence of the Katyn forest. 20,000 children of Poland disappeared, in horrendous circumstances, without a trace. Poland was left battered, bitter and confused, for nobody would take responsibility. Russia blamed Nazi Germany for 50 years; it was not until President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that any senior political figure in Russia would accept responsibility. Imagine 20,000 of your countrymen disappearing and the hurt and confusion lasting for half a decade. By the time the truth came out, generations had passed away without ever knowing who to blame and, subsequently, forgive.
Last weekend's 70th anniversary was a critical moment in history. Not only had Russia confessed its part in the Katyn massacre but it had invited Polish officials to Russia, to the site of the crime, to remember. Though it might have been a diplomatic occasion, it was still Russia saying sorry. More importantly, Poland was there to say thank you. You have at last accepted responsibility. Thank you. At last we understand. We forgive you.
And then the plane crashed, in the same forest that those 20,000 had lost their lives, taking away nearly every senior figure in Polish government, finance, clergy. Decades of hope and searching had come to fruition, and instantly ripped away.
What happened at Smolensk and the Katyn forest is incomprehensible. It is simply impossible to imagine the anger, fear and confusion that must be shared among Poles all over the world at present. But for many, I suspect, it is just another piece of bad news. I often wonder how desensitized we are to catastrophe and disaster, and this Sunday offered an element of proof. All church services are planned, and though often there is a time for response, there seems to be an unwritten obligation of the congregation to conform to schedule and procedure. Have we all become so complacent? The congregation seemed happy just to listen to a prayer asking for comfort for the Polish people, acknowledging that a horrible thing had happened and that we ought to pray. But when the lady stood up, crying, desperate for answers, it shook me, perhaps others too, if only because it broke the mould. It is not OK to just hope for comfort. It is not OK to ignore these events as only news items. We must help. We must try to understand. And if we do not know how to help, we must offer anyway.
It is hard to say if the Smolensk air crash will hamper or help Polish-Russian relations, although some are saying that Russia's swift response and assistance will offer reassurance of an about-turn in attitudes. But this catastrophe is more than just a plane crash. It is a setback in a much-delayed and frustrating healing process. Forgiveness and understanding were finally on the table, but grief was replaced not with hope but with further grief.
How then should we pray? What can we say to bring about healing for the Polish people? In truth, I do not know. But we do hope for comfort. But what is crucial is that we are listening - we will not ignore this as just another news story. We offer our help, if you wish this of us. We will not be complacent. We are ready.