Prayers for swordsman at the church he changed for ever

A CHRISTMAS CONGREGATION FORGIVES, BUT CANNOT FORGET

IT WAS easier to forgive than forget for the parishioners of St Andrew's Catholic church in Thornton Heath, South London, as they gathered for midnight mass on Christmas Day. Of the eleven people most seriously injured when a man wielding a Samurai sword attacked the congregation at the 10am mass four weeks ago two remain in hospital, recovering slowly from the deep wounds caused by the heavy blows from the fiercely sharp weapon.

The psychological wounds run deep too, particularly for those whose physical scars bring a constant reminder of the day's trauma, but they have not subdued the fervour to forgive of this closely knit community. Four weeks ago, even as the naked attacker was being disarmed and wrestled to the floor, shouts of "pray for him" overwhelmed the angry voices, shaken by the threat to their families' lives. And after a local man, Eden Strang, was charged with the attempted murder of the most seriously injured victim, Paul Chilton, the parish priest, Father John O'Toole spent several hours comforting and counselling the charged man's family.

Mr Strang, who has learning difficulties, had been at the church on the day of the attack to make sure of gaining a part in the Nativity play put on by disabled parishioners. The play went ahead without him on Christmas Eve, when a bigger crowd than ever turned out to show their support.

At the midnight mass, when thankfully there was no traditional Christmas drunk reeling up the aisle to cause hearts to flutter, one of the themes of Father Bill Agley's sermon was of the "opportunity" that the attack had given the parish.

"Through the media attention that the attack on the church brought us we have been given the opportunity to be messengers of Christ's message of hope and reconciliation," he said.

"The Prince of Peace came among us to show us how to love one another better, how to build a community where people love each other and love God. Our parish has become known worldwide and has had the opportunity of speaking to all nations of how important Jesus's message of peace and love remains."

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