Although Australia was brought to a standstill after the heart-wrenching deaths of four devout Maronite Catholic children in Sydney – it was the mighty faith of the children’s families after the horrific accident that shook the world.
The families’ heroic holy witness of Christ’s love has affected Christians worldwide and brought thousands to their knees in prayer.
On the evening of February 1, the Abdallah siblings–Antony, 13, Angelina, 12, and Sienna, 8, along with their cousin, Veronique Sakr, 11, were killed in Western Sydney after an alleged drunk driver plowed his car over them as they walked to shops to buy ice-cream.
The driver also injured three additional children, including Charbel Kassas (11), who continues to fight for his life.
The heartbroken mother’s astonishing forgiveness
Less than 48 hours after the tragic accident, it was the soft-spoken yet powerful words of Leila Abdallah, the mother of three of the children killed by the driver, that resounded throughout the world:
“I think in my heart, I forgive him… I’m not going to hate him–it is not who we are, and it is not what our religion tells us.”
For many, forgiveness is one of the hardest imperatives of the Catholic faith. In a world where so many are slaves to hatred, bitterness, and anger, it is Leila Abdallah’s touching example of love, mercy and compassion that serves as a modern-day reminder of what walking the path of holiness truly means.
Raising modern-day saints
“We tried teaching them to pray the Rosary, read their Bible, live their faith, be good people in life, and to share God’s face through them,” Abdallah said.
Leila’s husband Daniel added, “Our children are our reason for living. Bringing them up in accordance with the ways of God, teaching them to love, affording them every opportunity and nurturing them into positive and impacting young men and women was and is our life’s purpose.”
“Our life here on earth is but a vapor in comparison to His eternal plans, and the purpose God holds for His children,” he said.
It is sometimes said, “Your children are not your own.”
Many writers say it, including Congregational minister William Jay: “Your time is not your own; your riches are not your own; your children are not your own; your bodies, and your spirits, are not your own; but God is yours by absolute promise” (Sermons, 1802, p. 109).
The New Testament teaches that we are not our own, for we belong to Christ. Our children too belong to Christ, and only He, the Lord of life, can call them or allow events come to happen that are not of our choosing.
Through death, however cruel or unjust, our children can go to God, and we submit to His inscrutable will and Divine Providence, surrendering our children to him as we surrender our own lives.
Paying tribute to the children’s faith
Each individual child achieved much in their short lives. They were completely wrapped in God’s love.
Eleven-year-old Veronique Sakr was remembered as a vibrant, wise, thoughtful, and loving girl who was mature beyond her years. From a very young age, her parents taught her to recite the daily prayer, “My little Jesus, I love you.”
Her mother, Bridget Sakr, said, “I always wondered why Veronique had no attachment to anything material – it now makes sense to me why this is the case.
“She never belonged to this world–she belonged to the spiritual world. Therefore, earthly possessions meant nothing to her.”
The three Abdallah siblings actively volunteered and dedicated their Friday evenings feeding the less fortunate at a Team Jesus Foundation homeless kitchen.
From a very young age, these children grasped the height and depth of God’s love and reached a very high spiritual level.
Thirteen-year-old Antony Abdallah said on Instagram, “Give Jesus your weakness, He will give you His strength. Give Jesus your pain, He will give you healing. Give Jesus your questions, He will give you His answer.”
On Antony’s last day, he prayed with his father at Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral. He said that he wanted to dedicate his basketball game that day to NBA star Kobe Bryant.
Twelve-year-old Angelina was remembered for her fearlessness, kindness, compassion, and selflessness. She was described as her mother’s ‘right hand,’ her father’s ‘little helper’, a second mother to her siblings and was very loving to all her friends, cousins and teachers.
On Sienna’s eighth birthday, she insisted that instead of movies or playing games, she wanted to spend her Friday evening with Team Jesus feeding the hungry. And when a birthday cake was cut for her, she gave it all away to the homeless.
Team Jesus paid tribute in a Facebook post to the children and their role-model parents, Daniel and Leila Abdallah.
“All credit goes to Danny and Leila for their parental guidance, wisdom, and perseverance in getting their children educated in the way of charity, giving, and loving without expecting anything in return,” the organization said.
Like Daniel and Leila Abdallah – who raised 3 little saints and will continue to raise their 3 other children in the way of the Lord – may modern-day Catholic families today also strive to emulate the Holy Family.
It is by building homes centered on unity, prayer, sacrifice, love, service, and faith that a new generation of saints will rise and set the world ablaze with God’s life-giving fire.
A tragedy uniting thousands
Just days after the children’s deaths, Australia’s Maronite Catholic community organized Rosary and prayer vigils at the site of the crash. Thousands from different faiths gathered on behalf of the families.
The ground on which the children died has since been filled with flowers, cards, candles, crosses and rosaries, with religious icons, statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and photographs of the late children adorning the make-shift shrines built for each child.
“There is the huge question of ‘why now? Why three? Why such a huge cross?’ Some may say: why didn’t God stop this?” Msgr. Shora Maree said at the funeral.
“One thing that we do know is that God did not do this. God allows it because He will bring His glory through.”
Because of this tragedy, the extraordinary witness of the grieving but hope-filled families and their children’s powerful legacy shows the difference Christ’s peace brings in the darkest of hours.
Because of this tragedy, the families’ ensuing mission to preach and evangelize brings hundreds closer to the Catholic faith, showing the world the true meaning of selflessness, love, and forgiveness. Many hearts were reignited with a burning love for Christ.
Because of this tragedy, an extremely secular society can better understand Australia’s Maronite Catholic community. They are fiery, zealous, and united people, whose ancestors survived years of ongoing persecution in Lebanon. They are a community firmly rooted in family values, kinship, solidarity, tradition, and unwavering faith.
A celebration of life when death looms
The late children and their families serve as testaments to a key tenet of the Catholic faith: the belief in everlasting life. With suffering comes love; with the Cross comes the Resurrection; and with death comes new life. Where there is pain and suffering, there is God.
“Many times, I have prayed and reflected on the sorrows of Our Lord and thought of the fifth sorrow–the agony and pain of his Blessed Mother,” said Bridget Sakr, mother of Veronique.
“My heart is now in agony, but it is comforting knowing that in so often reflecting on this sorrow of Our Lady, God has prepared me for today.”
“As we’ve tried making sense of the past week, the world too has been shaken by this mortifying event. It is our hope that through this, all will know that no matter the pain or despair, God will be a safeguard through this dark valley. He is in control, and eternity sits in the palm of His divine hand,” Daniel Abdallah said.
Like the families’ incredible strength in facing such devastating loss, it is this timeless truth that we must seek to understand and readily accept: we are but voyagers traveling through the fleeting passage of life on a quest to find our way to the blessed eternity.
Just as we began this journey with no belongings and possessions, we take nothing with us but our faith and good works when our time passes.
A miracle still needed
Prayers are still needed for 11-year-old Charbel Kassas, who is in an induced coma and fighting for his life after the horrific tragedy. Reports reveal that Charbel Kassas is suffering significant injuries to his spine and brain.
“Charbel is still in a coma. We’ve prayed to God to help us and we hope He will help us,” said Charbel’s father, Assaad Kassas.
Sainthood is today
We can easily think that the Church’s greatest saints are but a mere memory–remnants of a lost golden age when the Church was once in its splendor and glory.
But one only needs to look at these grief-stricken families’ remarkable Christ-centered focus in the midst of this tragedy, reflecting on their children’s strong faith, and realizing that there are saints among us today.
Like them, our call to sainthood begins right here and now.