Tragedy in Newtown and a New Year’s Resolution for Our Town

Two weeks after the Newtown tragedy, the Church recalled Herod’s Massacre of the Holy Innocents at Bethlehem. Against such grief, faith is the only guardrail left.

Twelve days before Christmas, a horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut took the lives of 28 people, 20 of them small children. It was an evil visited upon that small community that sent the nation into grief and soul searching, and launched a national dialogue to make sense of it.

Among the standout examples was the December 20 “Wonderland” column by Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal about the necessity of rules of living for any society. Our social rules are the guardrails that hold “a no-limits culture . . . to the protective virtues of self-control and self-restraint.” Mr. Henninger’s column described the actual date when the U.S., or more precisely when many people within it, “began to tip off the emotional tracks.” It was 1968, the very turning point in Western Culture that I also cited in “Vatican II Turns Fifty Part 2: Catholics and Culture Collide.” For Daniel Henninger, that collision was a symptom of an “unfettered egotism” let loose in 1968. The result has been tragedy after tragedy. His prescription was simple:

“The Newtown killings brought forth another moment for the nation’s public and private leaders. A presidential speech and maybe a law can’t hurt. But what the nation needs from them is more leadership than that.”

Such leadership was demonstrated most clearly in the words of one of Newtown’s Catholic priests. Two days after the tragedy, on the Third Sunday of Advent, Father Peter Cameron told the grieving parishioners of Newtown’s Saint Rose of Lima parish that “The certainty of joy is that evil does not have the last word, that love wins.”

It took courage and faith to address the realities of evil and joy just then, two weeks before Christmas, in the face of immense sorrow, when most other voices were looking only to find a target to place blame. Father Cameron was right, and lest anyone wonder whether evil was really at the heart of what happened in Newtown, his parishioners were driven out of their church that day as police surrounded it with guns drawn because someone chose that moment for an anonymous bomb scare.

Though evil’s shout was loud and clear, it did not have the last word in Newtown. Whether love wins in the end there – and how and when – remains to be seen, but it’s off to a good start. While the President and nation commenced the inevitable long and tedious political debate about new gun control laws, the people of Newtown delved as deeply as they could into their wells of faith, and those whose wells were parched and dry were invited to lean on the faith of others. Father Peter Cameron is a man and priest of great courage and conviction, and he had to put both to work that day as he challenged grieving parents and parishioners:

“All of us have to be deeply united and pay attention to those who are hurting. We have lost those that we love, but we know they are living forever.”

He doesn’t just hope this. He knows it. He didn’t just assault their wounded sprits and broken hearts with the empty rhetoric of some generic sympathy card. Father Cameron held out to this community the convictions of a lived faith, and it was the very leadership they needed and hoped for in that moment. As the news cameras descended upon Newtown, its grieving citizens sought and found hope and solace from the priests, ministers, and rabbis of their respective traditions. Their faith was not the last guardrail they sought out to buttress their wounded souls, but the first.

LIFE WITHOUT FAITH IS EMPTY

Just three days earlier, and totally unrelated, Donald Demarco, Ph.D., from Human Life International, published an essay at Crisis Magazine entitled, “Does Belief in the Afterlife Diminish Man?” He cited Karl Marx who held that belief in an afterlife “robbed man of his only opportunity to be himself.” Auguste Comte, the father of modern sociology, declared that belief in life beyond death produced “slaves of God” rather than “servants of humanity.” How empty is this new age when life ends only in death? What do the humanists of this age have for the people of Newtown? Absolutely nothing of any value!

The atheists and secular humanists of our day are awfully noisy when the Sun is shining. It’s easy to sway people from faith when all seems well in the world, but I have noticed their silence when tragedy strikes. Who among that hopeless lot had the courage to stand before the parents of Newtown last month and declare that there is no God; that all they ever knew of their sons and daughters was lost forever to the random bullets of a madman; that they have nothing whatsoever left to share with the children taken from them; that any belief in another life is futile? The convictions of atheists fail miserably in such moments, and even the atheists have the good sense to know this and keep silent.

I’ve often wondered about this ever since the events I described in “A Shower of Roses” as I sat day after day at the bedside of my 17-year-old friend, Michelle, as she lay dying. I’ve often wondered what the likes of Richard Dawkins might have said to her. Would he have dared to take Michelle’s hand and declare, “This is it, my dear. There is nothing else”? If Richard Dawkins had opened his mouth in Newtown last month, he would have been shamed beyond what he could bear.

Three days after the Newtown tragedy, and the day after the people of St. Rose of Lima parish were driven out of their church by a bomb scare, I was asked by a prison guard if I believe that evil exists in our world. “Of course I do,” I said. “You cannot look rationally at what just happened and not see that evil has entered our world.” I added, “You certainly can’t work here and not see that.” He nodded thoughtfully, and left.

On good days, the people who want all religious conviction and witness removed from the public square dismiss evil as the irrational fear of the religious, but on December 14th in Newtown, CT, it was the only explanation that made any sense to anyone. Sure there were explanations of the physical realities of it: a young man teetered on the edge of mental illness a murdered mother who for some reason we will never understand thought it necessary in life to teach her troubled teenage son to be proficient in the use of an automatic assault rifle. The insanity of all this did not begin on December 14. Daniel Henninger tried to put the spin of reason on these decades of mass murder and tragedy since 1968:

“But then you still need to account for the nation’s simultaneous dive into extensive social and personal dysfunction. You need to account for those people within U.S. society who seem least able to navigate the personal and political torrents that they become part of.”

OUR DESCENT INTO SECULARISM IS AN ASSAULT ON LIFE

In other words, our culture’s forty years of descent into secular humanism has failed miserably. It has left many adrift on the margins of society. It has destroyed our family structures. It has virtually eliminated faith from public expression, and has left this nation – now spilling over into all of Western Culture – at the very brink of hopelessness and spiritual bankruptcy. Some have had the gall to call this “progress.”

This all reminded me so painfully of another day. In “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” a 2011 post on These Stone Walls that was mired in sadness, I wrote of the tragic death of a dear old friend, Father Maurice (Moe) Rochefort. There was more to that tragedy than just my friend’s death. His very association with my life as a priest began in unbearable sorrow.

When I was ordained to the priesthood on June 5, 1982, Father Moe had for a decade been pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in North Stratford, NH, a small, intimately woven rural parish not far from the Canadian border. I spent six months there as a deacon before priesthood ordination, so I knew nearly everyone in that small town. Father Moe led a caravan from the parish on the four-hour drive to attend my ordination.

On the night before I was ordained, Father Moe asked our bishop to delay my first assignment as a priest for a few weeks. He wanted to attend a religious education conference in Washington to complete a second master’s degree, but could not find a priest to cover his remote parish. Father Moe hoped that since I was already familiar with the parish, and they with me, I might like this opportunity to spend my first few weeks of priesthood with them. Our bishop agreed.

A few days after my First Mass, I drove to North Stratford to take Father Moe’s place. On the very day that I arrived, four teenagers from the small parish were killed when their open Jeep crossed a center line and collided head-on with an oncoming truck. They were boys age 14 to 16 and I knew them all. As a deacon the year before, I played football with them, taught them Confirmation class, climbed the Presidential Range with them, and had dinner at their homes. In an instant, they were gone.

Their families, their friends, the parish, and the entire community were stricken and spiritually devastated, and so was I. Virtually the whole town came to one or another Mass of Christian Burial – two on one day and two the next. Less than five days after I was ordained a priest, I buried four children of families and friends I knew and cared for.

I thought of this as the Masses, memorials and rites of burial commenced in Newtown, Connecticut just three weeks ago. For those of us with a little distance from that horror, there was something vaguely comforting about being able to remove our 2012 calendars to turn our faces away from a year that ended in such grief. But for the parents, grandparents, families and friends of those whose Earthly lives were taken, the removal of a calendar is meaningless. A part of them is trapped forever in December, 2012. It lingers and lingers, and for me it won’t leave so easily to become a page turned in recent history.

The latest anguish I felt was what I witnessed in the face of Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown as stricken parents asked him about the last moments of their children’s lives on Earth. The look on his face as he recalled these questions for a December 15 report on “Today News” reminded me vividly of the day I sat across a table with the mothers of two of those North Stratford boys all those years ago. Faith, for them, was not a refuge of last resort. It was a necessity, and the refuge to which they turned first. “I know our faith can’t explain why,” one mother told me, “but I also know I can’t get through another day without it.”

Our very salvation began in such grief. In “Upon a Midnight Not So Clear,” a Christmas post on These Stone Walls, I told the story of the Magi and deciphered some of the rich symbolism in its details. But the story of the Magi did not end with their gifts to the Christ Child of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The joy of Christ’s birth in Christian history overshadowed this other, devastating account of the death of innocents at the hands of evil. St. Matthew’s stark account strikes awfully close to home now:

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Magi. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children . . .’” (Matthew 2: 13-18)

Be it resolved in 2013 that we will stem the tide of public secularism that so deftly robs our people of the guardrail of faith. The folks of Newtown bravely stood against it. So must we. For the Letter to the Hebrews (11:1), “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen.”

It is a necessary New Year’s Resolution to provide that evidence, to bravely embrace this Year of Faith in public, to open up a determined response in the public square that our religious liberty, and our Gospel mandate to live our faith in our time, will not go quietly into the night.

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. Mary Fran says:

    Fr. G, one of those little children was the granddaughter of a couple in our parish. We had a photograph of her surrounded by candles at the front of the church. I didn’t know the couple at the time. I was there taking pictures of one of the Hispanic events and happened to take a picture of one of my Hispanic friends holding up the little girl’s picture asking for prayers (I assumed, since I know no Spanish). The grandparents later asked for a copy of the picture.

  2. Juan says:

    Thank you Father Gordon for suggesting such a valuable New Year’s Resolution. I trust your article will be of comfort to those in grief. I would like to offer them my renewed sympathy and continued prayers.

    You cite Jeremiah’s words contained in Matthew 2:3-18: “ A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children . . .” (Jer 31:15), words that came true after Herod’s horrific orders. This gloomy citation has also been used to refer to feelings after the killing of developing human beings in their mothers’ wombs. Let us not forget what follows in the next two verses:”Thus says the Lord: cease your cries of mourning, wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward, says the Lord, they [Rachel’s children] shall return from the enemy’s land” (Jer 31:16-17). Words of great hope indeed.

    It seems clear then that beyond the necessary debates on gun control and personality disorders, it is vital to realize that modern society has forgotten a few key facts. There was a unique Babe born in Bethlehem. There was a Good Friday and an Easter Sunday. He came to this Earth to illuminate our darkness (and darkness there is) and we humans not only could not care less but put him to die a horrible death without even a tenable excuse. The victim on Calvary is alive now. He continues to be with us in ways only understandable by faith in most instances but other times He can show Himself to us through well documented miracles (i.e., serious illnesses being cured when ordinary medical remedies have failed) or through persons such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. And now through you, Father Gordon, you that without faith would not be standing on your feet to serve the Truth, be a model to us and reflect His light so that wherever and however we may be, our darkness is less dark. Although said many times before, thank you so much Father Gordon MacRae.

    The question has been and will continue to be asked: why did the gunman – none but an older adolescent, a deeply troubled one – do what he did? May God have mercy on him.

    Taking up where you end your article, “to bravely embrace this Year of Faith in public”, may I say this: may this Faith lead us all to serve the Truth and to show sparks of true, pure Love to all, including of course the troubled ones, in our daily encounters.

    In the “Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska” we read that mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to Jesus’ mercy, that is to say, until we all turn to God (see # 300). This God loves each and everyone of us. However big or small the troubles of our neighbors may be, let us show them sparks of love. These we are all receiving from you, Father Gordon.

    Holy 2013 to everyone.

    Juan.

  3. M says:

    Thank you for a gently lucid discussion Father G. I am sure you would understand Rory’s defence of the goodness of the non believers he has worked along side and I suspect when he reads back over your article he will realise you were not critical of the goodness of non believers but trying to show the dangers to society of those who would try to remove Christianity from the public square.
    I am sure many non believers have no desire to rob others of religious freedom but there is a determined minority actively working towards that end.

  4. Dympna says:

    Dear Fr. Gordon,
    Thank you yet again for another thought- provoking post.
    God bless you!

  5. Dorothy Stein says:

    I have been reading the comments and at first I was a bit concerned because I thought people were jumping on Rory who I think made some very good points. I just read Rory’s second comment and I just want to add one thing. I too know many good people who are not religious, who express little to no faith, and who promote secularism. I was one of them for a very long time. However, I do not think it was to these that Fr. MacRae and some of the commenters here have addressed their concerns. There is no question in my mind that the secular humanist wave of early 21st Century Western culture does not seek to promote secularism, but rather diminish, even demolish, Christianity and Orthodox faith including Orthodox Judaism. I understand Rory’s points, and even agree, but this is not what we are talking about. We’re talking about a culture in which, for example, the owner of a business such as Chick-fil-a simply professed in the open his belief in the Biblical concept of marriage and yet was publicly branded a bigot and a boycott was quickly organized in an attempt to suppress not only his views but his livelihood as well. It was all in the name of progressive secular humanism. I should add that the aftermath might be a lesson for us all. Chick-fil-a’s business was booming during and after the ridiculous boycott.

    • Rory O'Callaghan says:

      If I could make final point,with relevance to Fr Gordon’s fate. I appreciate now what is happening in the US, especially the campaign against religion. Yes, it is happening, but I think it would be useful to see where some of the motivation for this comes from. If we can understand the anger, the venom, maybe we can help defuse it.
      I see a curious link between the Chick-fil-a boycott and Fr McCCrae. And it has little to do with secularism. The Vatican City itself is a secular entity. The Founding Fathers wisely separated church from state. They said all could have their faith, and have it inform their contributions in the public square, but none could build their churches in the agora. No church stands between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.
      No, the problem is what happened their system in the 1950s, the era of the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. The efficiency of capitalism was wedded to the manipulation of marketing to unleash consumerism. We’re living with its dreadful effects fifty years later.
      The head of Chick-fil-a is an honourable believer in Biblical marriage. But the products he sells, to children, are industrialised pap, degraded and low in nutrition, unfit for any child. Even the name has been degraded into childish English by the marketing men. The forces driving production have no respect for the health or well-being of the customer. These forces are wholly incompatible with being a Christian, where respect, and love, for the other is paramount. When people hear his profession of faith, they cannot square it with his role as a champion of consumerism who uses people for profit.
      Similarly Fr McCrae is an honourable priest, one of countless many. But his church has been laid low by a few who, behaving like frenzied consumers let loose by the same forces from the Sixties onwards, preyed on the most vulnerable, using them for their own ends. When he protests his innocence, however obvious it may be, people cannot square it with the deeds of other priests, however few there were.
      In both cases, people are presented with conflicting messages: honourable faith besmirched by dishonourable practices. Secularism has proud roots in America, and many will always promote it, but they are now being fuelled by anger from people who feel deceived, whose values have been trampled on by the forces of consumerism even as they are part of the system. This for me explains the seemingly senseless and ridiculous boycott of a businessman’s livelihood, the imprisoning of an innocent man.
      Lance the boil of consumerism, shift the flow of the American transactions from take to give so they are more in balance, and the boycotts will fade and the anger keeping an honourable priest behind bars will eveporate enough to allow the gate finally to spring open.

  6. Rory O'Callaghan says:

    Thanks for your comments. One of the blessings to flow from Fr Gordon’s writing is that difficult subjects are discussed with such courtesy and respect.

    When Anthony refers to my suggestion of a Manichaean world-view, I’m not at all accusing Fr of heresy or anything like that, but that he seems to reflect a trend, reinforced by Anthony and others in the US, of going from abhorrent policy such as the HHS Mandate or the concerted attack on the Church, which must be resisted, to a more generalised idea that the US is now split into two opposing sides, those on the side of faith and family, versus those in government on the side of secularism, one good, the other evil. There was a time when ‘clear and present danger’ referred to outside forces, now it seems to be Washington itself. I’m not saying this isn’t entirely the case, but to see it only as such and speak as if those of opposing views are the mortal enemy seems to be part of a process of sliding towards national breakdown and, ultimately, a second civil war. To a European, a continent for so long dependent on and grateful for American strength, this is more than unnerving.

    At the same time, I agree with Gina’s description of a society that is sick. We can all recognize it. Perhaps though, having come across many good secularists and noting that many of the Founding Fathers would have seen themselves as secularists in separating the affairs of church and state, I would see the sickness as being the fault not of secularism but consumerism. Secularism can posit love, whereas consumerism must deny it absolutely because it denies the individual from giving. He or she can only take from the world, not give of themselves to it.

    So, to Caroline, I would say my view is not a rush to judgment, more a worry about an increasing American divide, and an idea that in attacking secularism we are attacking the wrong target. I see no light whatsoever in consumerism.

    As for Dr Dawkins, I couldn’t agree more. His arguments are vacuous. The danger is to treat him as a spokesman for secularism. He’s a bigot of the most fundamental kind and speaks for no one but himself, whatever he might say.

    You ask what can secualrists offer? I have seen them offer, and give, love. And from that love hope grows, a spark as Gina says. Perhaps a secularist cannot offer the Christian narrative, but he or she can know that in loving those who for now have lost love, and loved ones, that the spirit of those who have gone lives on. No materialist can deny that love can be passed on, and lives on.

    And that’s what I would say to Mary Jean. My secularist colleagues console their bereft charges with love. And yes, God is love. I am happy to imagine that God is smiling somewhere, thinking to Himself that, in the end, these damned secularists come back to Him. I’m sure he can handle the fact that, for some, he must remain the unnameable one. In His love, He still works through them.
    Rory

  7. Joann says:

    Joe Maher’s daughter wrote and performed a music video for her cousin, Alison Wyatt, killed at Sandy Hook.

    Joe Maher began OPUS BONO SACERDOTII to help priests in trouble.

  8. FRANK DIAS says:

    Thank you Fr. Gordon. What an excellent article, this clarified all i need
    to know or knew already. i am printing this and giving it out to our Priests.
    After i got back from Vietnam, we that fought in that war to end the
    cold war came back to a different America. Everything i learned was turning
    upside down, i stopped going to church, then came back. We are so rich
    in the Catholic church today. I will fight every day for God and will spread
    his message to all that want it..Fr. Gordon i have been going to adoration
    and i pray that your days be few in the Ministry of that prison. May our blessed Mother proctect you .. God Bless you.

    Frank d.
    combat vet
    knights of columbus in support of all priests..

  9. billadams says:

    Father, thank you for your wonderful postings. God bless you. Bill Adams

  10. Rory O'Callaghan says:

    I wonder if I could defend some of the silent secularists you label with shame in the aftermath of Newtown. I have my own faith, but work alongside many others of no religious faith helping bereaved children in the aftermath of often sudden, sometimes violent, death, such as at Newtown. Their work is caring, selfless and fiercely dedicated. They are silent in the aftermath of tragedies such as Newtown because, like priests, they are busy with survivors. They have no time for media bites. Perhaps they have a faith, but that faith is in love, not God. I do not question them on this. Their work is good enough for me. It seems unjust that, in your Manichaean world view, all secularists are associated with evil while all people of faith are linked to good. I have worked alongside priests and atheists cradling children most in need. I see no difference between them. Whether they are moved by divine love or human is only the stuff of our divided selves.

    • Anthony Wheeler says:

      I could not disagree more with this comment. Did we read the same post? I see nothing Manichaean at all in the views expressed here. The point is well taken that many atheists and secular humanists organised against any public expression of religion in Western Culture. How can anyone deny this after all the blatant attempts to suppress Christmas? The point here is that in the face of tragedy people seek out the guardrail of fate. The point was very well made and very clear: government oppression of faith is a clear and present danger to our citizens, and Newtown has been a vivid example.

    • Gina Nakagawa says:

      Since God is Love, those who give comfort to the least of His brethren give the blessings of God. Deep in their hearts is a spark, that hopefully will become a flame. Father is not speaking of those who love but to the two predominant groups in our sad, lonely and sick society: those who hate and those who do not care. May God shed his grace on those who love that they many find their way to Him. Father, thank you for another beautiful article. Praying for you. May God bless all the fine work you do.

    • Caroline says:

      God is love. Love doesn’t exist without Him. May I give you my opinion? Fr. never equated secularism with “evil”. He wasn’t referring to the good people you know who are caregivers. He said evil is in the world. It is. To call his views “Manichaean” is a rush to judgment. Strict secularists can only offer materialism and man made solutions. Good intentions, assistance, education, law, a hearty hand clasp. None of these things are evil. But man is limited. Laws can be unjust. We’ve had infanticide on demand for decades. No end to the death penalty. Eugenics lives. Outsource industry from sweatshops prevails. Our entertainment revolves around violence and self indulgence. The violence against women and children in the world today is beyond belief. Good intentions with a hostile view of our fellow man doesn’t make sense. Putting God out of the picture makes it worse. I think Fr. is perfectly correct to say Dr. Dawkins, an atheist who savagely ridicules anyone who believes in God by questioning their intellect, has no answers for those facing death. Dawkins has said any vestige of faith should be removed from society. Aren’t we seeing that now with the HHS Mandate? We all are on differently stages of life’s journey. I have relativist friends who do great acts of kindness. Sometimes we need more. Life becomes unbearable for those of us who have lost a loved one without some hope perhaps we may see them again. Peace.

    • Mary Jean Scudieri says:

      You missed the point Rory or did Father hit a nerve? With WHAT do you console? We know where these children and adults are, in the glory of God, forever in happiness and ultimate love. They will be reunited with their families! How can you fault something as wonderful as that?

      Having lost a son myself I know it takes more than a “human” touch to get through. How sad that it just ends for you at your end. For us it is our beginning and what a beautiful moment to look forward to when this life is done! I will pray for you that faith will find it’s way to you here but I know without a doubt you will encounter God in the end whether you want to or not!

      Thank you Father Gordon for a beautiful article!

      God’s blessings to you and the boys in the coming year!
      Jeannie

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