Just before Christmas, the Catholic Herald named the composer Sir James MacMillan as its first Catholic of the Year. The award recognised many things: masterly compositions such as the St John and St Luke Passions and the Fourth Symphony, the latter played at this year’s Proms; his investiture as a knight in December; the setting up with his wife, Lynne, of a new music festival, the Cumnock Tryst; and his intellectually dazzling defence of orthodox Catholicism.
What the magazine didn’t tell its readers, or even James, was that we also wanted to honour the MacMillan family for its profoundly Catholic response to a family crisis. James and Lynne’s daughter, Catherine, had a severely disabled daughter, Sara. Helping Catherine care for Sara was the private but overwhelming priority for Sir James and Lady MacMillan (as they now are) for the best part of six years.
Sara’s death in the first week of 2016 was unexpected and devastating. At her Requiem Mass, James gave a eulogy that celebrated Sara’s life as a gift; he also deplored the fact that, in 21st-century Britain, there are ‘caring’ people who feel that a human being as physically broken as his granddaughter should not exist.
With the permission of Sir James and the Catholic Herald, I’m reproducing his extraordinary address, which moves beyond heartbreak to his belief – and the Church’s teaching – that little Sara has now joined the company of the saints.
People say – in fact, the most interesting people say – that God intervened in human history. That is, he interfered with our story, to become one of us, to know what it means to be human, and for us to know Him and to discover that He loves us, with all the implications that has.
Other people will also maintain that this interference in our lives has manifested itself in other ways, perhaps less dramatic, less cosmic, less strange and inexplicable but with parallel revelations.
I can think of a few of these revelatory interferences. Perhaps you can too. The music of JS Bach, the writings of Shakespeare, Michelangelo’s Pietà, the evolution of democracy from ancient Greece to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Einstein’s development of the Theory of Relativity … Celtic winning the European Cup in 1967.
Nearly six years ago my daughter Catherine gave birth to a beautiful little girl, Sara Maria, who was multiply handicapped due to Dandy Walker Syndrome. She had lots of problems, was helpless in every way, but she changed our world. She died on January 5.
Over these years with Sara some of us experienced other, more gradual, more surprising, more silent and transformative realisations of the divine love I mentioned above in the unassuming, patient, tiny, broken, handicapped, smiling, listening, quacking, delighted presence of Sara.
It is not an exaggeration to say that lives have been changed through knowing this little angel; from her mother Catherine, whose life changed forever when she said yes to new life, to the wider family and friends who saw in this relationship an astonishing love and devotion, who saw rapture gazing at rapture, who saw tenderness embrace tenderness, who saw devotion build upon devotion, who saw worship meet worship, who saw the cherisher lift up the cherished, who saw the enchanter astonish the enchanted, who saw heart lost to heart. And how this deep and cosmic love spread out to everyone who was privileged to enter their lives. There are people throughout the world who have become different people through their associations with Sara.
She touched people who only knew her from afar – through electronic communication with her mother and family. Catherine was sustained by parents around the world who were able to share the challenges, the problems and the love of fragile special-needs children. Even those who never met her, and who only heard of her through my wife, Lynne, and me, have commented in these days on how we would both light up with pride and joy every time we got the chance to talk about Sara and her mum.
One of my current projects has taken me to the shrine of Our Lady at Fatima, for which I am presently writing a new work to mark the centenary of the apparitions to the shepherd children in 1917. Lynne and I visited Fatima in May last year and discussed with the director of the shrine some practical issues relating to a planned visit there of Sara and Catherine, which even involved the types of food blenders we might be able to use.
We have had beautiful messages this week from the heart of Our Lady’s shrine. This, for example, from the directors of the sanctuary in Portugal: “Feel our embrace directly from Fatima, directly from the house of the Mother of God. She will pray her Son for little Sara’s soul who is already in God’s arms.”
And this from Fr Vitor Coutinho, rector of the sanctuary: “Certain in faith that she is in the joy of God’s love, we pray particularly for Catherine, grandparents and the rest of the family, that during the pain of separation you may feel the comfort of Mary, the one that stands by the Cross offering her Son.
On behalf of the whole team of the shrine of Fatima, we present our most heartfelt condolences and we ensure you of our prayerful presence during this moment in your life. In the Holy Mass, here in the shrine, we will thank God for the gift of Sara’s life.”
It is strange that this momentous interference in our stories has come from someone so weak and small. Our world celebrates strength and power, after all. We glorify in might and wealth and health and success. We cheer winners and achievers. We bow before men and women of financial clout. We laud politicians of guile and ruthlessness – the more rabble-rousing and populist the better these days, it seems.
Sara had nothing of any of this. Our society doesn’t know what to make of children like Sara any more. There are some very important, powerful, professional, “caring” people who made it clear that they thought Sara should not exist – that the compassionate response to her significant disabilities would be to stop her living, for her mother to say “no” instead of “yes” to Sara. The concept of lebensunwertes leben (“life unworthy of life”) did not disappear 70 years ago on the defeat of Nazi Germany. It’s here now in our modern, oh-so-caring-and-sharing nice democracies. Well, Sara interfered with that narrative, too, and turned it on its head.
Love itself, which is the fundamental necessity for human life and is the true signifier of the sanctity of life, is hard. It is easier to turn our backs on love. That is why these interferences I mention, whether they are from God, or Mozart or from wee Sara, are such blessings and transformations. We have been blessed and transformed through knowing and loving Sara, and being known and loved in return by her.
Sara’s parish priest Fr Euan Marley OP wrote this: “The Church teaches that young children and the handicapped, who are unable to make a choice, if they are baptised, are freed from the sin of humanity and incapable of sinning. So if they die, their soul is admitted into the vision of God and they are happy for ever. Everyone who gets to heaven gets there through the grace of God, but for most of us, it involves a struggle, because that’s the way it is. To lose a child is a great grief and we should never take it lightly. Yet God’s will prevails, and Sara is now a saint in heaven.”
I pray that her divine interference, which has been her commission from God, will continue in unexpected ways in our lives, that our grief at her departure can be swallowed by the joy of remembering her and that we will join her again, one day, in heaven.
• Sir James MacMillan is a composer and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald.