Around 1000 people from different backgrounds and denominations filled St Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne on Thursday morning to remember people lost in the MH17 tragedy and to support their friends and families as part of a national day of mourning.
The focus was on them, as talk of blame and of justice for the victims was put on hold to focus on the suffering of those left behind and the need to offer them comfort.
The friends and family of those killed held each other tightly as clergy, government officials and dignitaries spoke, as the Australian Boys’ Choir sang, and as the names and photographs of the dead were displayed, one by one, on screens throughout the cathedral.
The Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, used his opening address to acknowledge their pain and the terror they must have felt as news emerged that flight MH17 had been shot out of the sky. He said there had been an outpouring of love for them, which he hoped provided some comfort, though he said it would not take away the pain.
“We stand in solidarity with those who are suffering unimaginable loss,” he said as he opened the memorial ceremony.
The Australian Boys’ Choir sang the national anthem, followed by a multifaith opening prayer from representatives of 12 belief systems, including Jewish, Hindu, Islamic and Catholic denominations.
The governor-general, Sir Peter Cosgrove, offered a moving tribute to those killed as he wore a white wristband with the words “we will never forget you” in Dutch.
He was also present at a repatriation ceremony for the victims held on the tarmac of a Netherlands air base just over two weeks ago.
“Our thoughts were consumed by lives cut short, those left behind and the intolerable heartbreak caused by this tragedy,” Cosgrove said.
“So often words do not and cannot express our true feelings and thoughts during such a time of great loss.”
He acknowledged the resilience of the families of those killed, and referred specifically to Rin and Anthony Maslin, who lost their children Mo, Evie and Otis, and the children’s grandfather, Nick Norris, to the tragedy.
“Even at such a time, even the most deeply bereaved can demonstrate extraordinary fortitude,” he said.
“The Maslin family has expressed so powerfully some of how they feel, that in spite of the enormity of their loss and the depth of their despair, their love exceeds and surmounts all the hatred in the world.
“There is nothing stronger or more powerful than the love we have for our children, our partner, our parents, our family, our friends.”
He also offered condolences and heartfelt thanks to the people of the Netherlands, who he said had embraced each and every one of the dead as though their own.
“Thank you for the compassionate and dignified way you have paid respects, for the minutes of silence, the ringing church bells, the flags flying at half mast and the sea of flowers. We thank you for your kindness and humanity as you too deal with tremendous loss.”
His words were followed with a reading from the Netherlands ambassador, Annemieke Ruigrok, and the high commissioner for Malaysia, Zainal Abidin Ahmad.
The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said those on board MH17 were “innocent, unoffending and precious”.
“We mourn 38 of our own who laughed and learned and loved beneath the southern cross,” he said.
“Today is not about why or how, it is about who we have lost and what we will miss.”
To the families, he said: “It is almost impossible to say anything that can console you at this painful hour.
“But I hope you can draw modest consolation from our nation’s great, invisible, generous, sustaining sympathy, and from the knowledge that you do not walk alone today.
“You loved wonderful people who lived meaningful lives.”
Katie Noonan performed an acoustic version of the song, Even When I’m Sleeping, and returned to the stage later to close the service with I am Australian.
The prime minister, Tony Abbott, followed her performance, saying that almost three weeks ago today families and friends of the MH17 victims woke up to the “very worst news imaginable”.
He used his tribute to reiterate the importance of bringing home the 38 Australians who were among the 298 shot down.
“May those we have lost arrive home to the people and country they loved,” he said.
“We cannot bring them back, but we will bring them home as far as we humanly can, and we rededicate ourselves to supporting the bereaved.”
Abbott also described the contribution those Australians killed had made to society. A time to judge those responsible and bring them to justice would come, he said, but the memorial service was to recognise the meaningful lives of those killed.
“[They were] doctors who worked with refugees, teachers who worked with children, with people who are disabled, volunteers in armed forces and local charities, business innovators, and pillars of local communities, young people filled with passion for the lives before them,” he said.
“Somehow, we who have not been bereaved must reach out to those who have and show by our love. That love has not abandoned them – you have not been abandoned and you never will be.”
The families of the victims then filed to the front of the cathedral, where they laid flowers in remembrance of those they loved, and will miss, so much.
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