Written by Doug Wrenn
Connecticut Catholic Corner Contributor
I cannot recall any previous time in which I felt so sensitive to the need to ever so carefully craft my words. Right now, I feel like I’m walking a precarious literary tightrope, but the message still needs to be conveyed, even more so now, because someone else who should have conveyed it abysmally failed to clearly do so.
I have previously worked in every facet of public safety, as well as in public health, and in the criminal justice system. I have admittedly developed a pretty tough skin and even a pretty sharp cynical edge over the years from those days. Being immersed in the sordid side of the human condition easily jades a person, or at least toughens them. It’s a defense mechanism I guess. And in my current capacity, I have recently worked quite a bit in Newtown, Connecticut, and in the village of Sandy Hook within it within the past couple years, and as recently as just a couple months ago. I know the village, the town, and the area. And while my waistline has expanded and my hair has grayed over the years, age also has had an effect of thinning some of that skin and dulling some of that edge. But none of that really matters, because what happened in that otherwise sleepy, bucolic little hamlet has shook even the most seasoned and hardened first responder to the core. No human being, let alone children, should ever have to endure the atrocity that occurred there, and no one should ever have to witness it, or ever have to deal with it or its aftermath, nor is any thinking, feeling human being probably even ever fully prepared to deal with it.
Like the rest of America, my anguishing heart aches, and my prayers have scarcely ceased in the moments since I first learned of a tragedy that has now trumped Columbine and stands second in bloodshed only to Virginia Tech, but this time, this one, as Gov. Malloy has cited, was close to home.
Suffice to say that I get it. But especially in tough times, truth needs to be heard. Honesty is still the best policy, but that also doesn’t mean that you take diplomacy and throw it out the window, either. A good surgeon knows he must take a sharp instrument and cut open the skin to save his patient. But he also knows enough to first administer a pain reliever or anesthetic. Both are important for the success of the operation. In that sense, priests have the same type of obligation as surgeons, but with priests, in dealing with souls, as well as lives, the stakes are even higher.
Specifically, I am referring to a Saturday afternoon mass I attended after the Sandy Hook shooting in the parish of family members, and with those family members, as we were gathering later that evening after mass for dinner with some of our family who had flown in from other states for a visit during this holiday season.
The location of the church nor the identity of the priest celebrating the mass is relevant to this piece, but I took profound umbrage to the priest’s decision and subsequent explanation, as well as his cowardly hypocrisy, erroneously, if not falsely cloaked in what he apparently deemed to be compassion.
I am acquainted with this priest. He buried my father. I also have a lifelong friend who was a former parishioner of his from another parish in another city years back. This priest has a huge following and is widely liked, and I earnestly believe him to be a good man, and a good priest, but he dropped the ball on Saturday.
At the beginning of mass, he announced that he changed the readings, which in this season of Advent, spoke of rejoicing, because he felt that in the current national mood in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, no one really felt like rejoicing. Indeed, he was right about that, and on the news just before I left my home for mass, it was reported that many families in Newtown were taking down their Christmas decorations in the wake of the atrocity.
After making that announcement, the priest then rambled on about how the light of Christ will lead us all out of evil and out of the darkness. Well, right on that point too, there, Padre, but now you’re giving us mixed messages. So, which is it? Should we rejoice and take hope in the light of Christ, or hunker down and wallow, like you just did, and capitulate to the evil one? His words rung shallow, juxtaposed against his contradictory actions. In a very dark time in my own life some years back, I spoke with my pastor and confessed to him that I was succumbing to despair. He told me by doing so, I was letting Satan win, because that was exactly what he wanted me to do. My pastor was right, and in fact, #2091 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines despair as a loss of hope in God‘s mercy, and thus, a violation of the First Commandment.
EWTN’s Father John Corapi often spoke about a sad, spiritually dangerous, and growing trend of priests in America today more consumed with being popular than saying what needs to be said, teaching what needs to be taught, and bringing up hot button topics rather than avoiding them, and in so doing, these shepherds, in fact, from apostolic succession, are ironically leading their sheep straight into perdition. I witnessed one of those shepherds doing the very same on Saturday. (Although, not me! And while certainly no saint by any means, I’m leaving this earth still fighting before I ever “head south”!) Priests are indeed, “shepherds,” in the model of Christ. With the laity, as with sheep, they are there for these leaders and caretakers to be cared for, and to be led, not corralled and suppressed.
Popularity and truth are not at all necessarily synonymous, and in fact, Archbishop Fulton Sheen once noted that truth is still the truth no matter how few or how many people believe it. Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, obviously as keen as he was evil, once observed that “A lie told often enough soon becomes truth.” Indeed, we have witnessed that fact repeatedly throughout history. But taught often enough, and in such an appropriate way as people can more easily digest it, I find it hard to believe that the truth, told often enough, can also be more widely recognized as the truth.
I once asked a priest why it is that the Catholic Church so barely encourages the laity to read the Bible as much as some of the Protestant Churches do among their flocks. He said that while contrary to popular belief, there are not contradictions in the Bible, but rather, paradoxes, and given the fact that so much of the Bible is written in symbolism and in interpretations from so many languages from so many people from so many ancient civilizations, it can easily be misinterpreted, and thus the Church believes while there is certainly nothing wrong with the laity reading the Bible, it also believes the highly educated and specially trained priests are better at explaining it. OK, that makes sense to me. So again, this priest dropped the ball. Sometimes how you say something is as significant as what is being said. A well thought out and carefully crafted Homily would have better explained those Epistles of rejoicing and turned them from a bitter pill to swallow to words of comfort and hope for clearly broken and hurting people during this dark time, and indeed, many people broke down and openly sobbed throughout the mass. This priest missed a golden opportunity to help and comfort them. Where now is their hope? What have they to hold onto in this increasingly secular and barbaric world? What’s left?
If Christ calls us to be the “salt” of the earth and to season it, would He not expect that even more of His priests? The Sandy Hook school shooting is national news, and scarcely nothing else is being broadcast or reported right now. And on so many local and national stations and networks, I continually hear people rhetorically and painfully ask aloud, “How could God allow this to happen?” God gives us free choice, so that we may choose the salvation of our souls to turn to good rather than evil. What have we earned if God forced it upon us or did it for us? The same argument has been made against Government overstepping its bounds and using tax revenue for charitable (and unconstitutional) purposes. When it is mandated, or (technically) embezzled, what motivation exists for (some) people to donate to charity? And, in fact, often, I have heard people say “that’s the government’s job.” Reward does not come without choice. And the clergy needs to be strong and vigilant about driving that point home. Out of evil comes good, as we have seen through so many previous disasters in people coming together. And despite whatever unspeakable anguish we may endure in this world, if we cling to Christ and His light, we will be healed, we will be comforted, we will be saved, but it is especially during the dark times that that light needs to be illuminated, and not hidden for the sake of short term, shallow, and virtually fruitless so-called compassion. And all this time, I thought I was one who was sometimes lacking in, as the cliché says, “shielding his candle flame under the haystack.” A student, or a sheep, is only is good as his teacher, or shepherd, allows him to be.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1868 describes the way we may either directly, and yes, even indirectly commit sin. Two such ways are by not hindering sin, and by protecting evil-doers. I would argue, that while I do not believe it was an intentional act on the part of the priest, but rather by poor judgment, he protected the evil-doer by giving conflicting messages, to the extent he gave any, about the light of Christ, and thus failed to hinder the presumably intentional ugly after-effects of the sin committed. And again, my purpose here is not to bash this priest, but to illustrate a message that needs to be conveyed, and one in which he not just failed, but chose to disregard the necessary opportunity, and his duty, to convey it to hurting lay members seeking both answers and solace during and for their anguish, agonizing befuddlement and cavernous grief. Evil won on Friday in Sandy Hook. And it won again in this church on Saturday afternoon elsewhere in Connecticut. A hungry flock came to this priest, desperately seeking a substantive meal. He fed them junk food, and sadly, they departed in the same pathetic condition as with which they had entered.
Many people are flailing in the dark of anguish right now and yearning for something to grab onto to lead them out. Keeping the darkness dark, while perhaps seemingly “compassionate” on the surface, is not the answer, nor is it true compassion. Perhaps the priest might wish to reflect on the sage words of our first Pope, St. Peter, in John: 6, 68: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Or perhaps, on those of our Savior, Himself, in Matthew, 11; 28-30: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I can’t get the lyrics out of my head from the Beatles song, “All The Lonely People.” One part of the song in particular gnaws at me, and perhaps the priest in question should ponder it, “Father Mackenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from her grave. No one was saved. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” You didn’t save anyone on Saturday, Father. You merely wiped the dirt from your hands. And by the way…they belong TO YOU!
As someone who once lost a child himself, albeit under far less heinous circumstances, I know a little something about what that feels like, and what follows, and thus, I have no illusions that anything said by anyone (including me) will ever bring any of those lost children back. But like it or not, their survivors are still very much alive, and the fact that they will move forward is not, itself, the question, but rather, how. Make no mistake about it, the departed innocent now already enjoy peace, as well they should. It is the living, who need it now.
And to all those impacted by this horrible tragedy, my fervent hope, as well as my prayers for you all, continue.
Connecticut Catholic Corner Contributor