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.