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How is the Church in Newtown coping after the tragedy?

John Burger - published on 01/17/13

Eight members of the parish were among the 27 victims in the December shooting.

During the weekend’s six Masses at St. Rose of Lima, the large church was standing room only. People choked back tears and broke down in emotional embraces. Young fathers carried their children, and elderly parishioners sat, quietly reflecting. “This is the place you are supposed to be. This is the place where you will find God,” said Father Ortigas in his homily.

Newtown, CT (ALETEIA) – The contrast could hardly be starker. With the rose vestments of Gaudete Sunday and the pink candle of the third Sunday of Advent, it was supposed to be a joyful reminder of the hope of Advent. But it may be difficult for parishioners of St. Rose of Lima parish in Newtown, Conn., to be hopeful right now.

Eight members of the parish were among the 27 victims of Friday’s shooting rampage in a public school here. A 20-year-old gunman allegedly killed his mother in their home in this bucolic New England town, then drove to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 first-graders, six teachers and administrators and then turned the gun on himself.

During the weekend’s six Masses at St. Rose of Lima, the large church was standing room only. People choked back tears and broke down in emotional embraces. Young fathers carried their children, and elderly parishioners sat, quietly reflecting.

Outside, under cloudy skies and a light drizzle, people hugged one another as they emerged from Mass and placed flowers, candles and teddy bears at makeshift shrines, especially around a statue of the Blessed Mother.

Nevertheless, Father Ignacio Ortigas, assistant pastor, told Aleteia.org that the parish has been overwhelmed by “the love people are showing.”

“People are turning to God, to our faith and to family,” he said. “That’s the only way we can deal with it. There’s no human consolation, really. Being with the parents, I wasn’t able really to say anything. You just give them a hug.”

He recounted that he was just about to finish a parish school Mass on Friday morning when Msgr. Robert Weiss, the pastor, came in to announce that all schools in Newtown were on lockdown. The principal of St. Rose School kept the children in the church, while other adults in the parish kept watch at the locked doors. “No one could go anywhere,” Father Ortigas said. The students were moved to the parish school, but in all, they were kept in “lockdown” for about three hours.

Eventually, as the grim news emerged, Father Ortigas and the other priests of the parish went to the scene of the tragedy to offer assistance as parents arrived to find out about the fate of their children.

“We were there most of the day,” he said.

Father Ortigas said in a homily at the mid-morning Mass that his heart was broken by the tragic event of Dec. 14. “But there is someone who can heal that heart,” Father Ortigas said.

“In that pain, you turn here,” he told Mass-goers. “This is the place you are supposed to be. This is the place where you will find God.”

He also invited members of the 11,000-person parish to pray the Rosary during this difficult time. “Our blessed Mother reminds us again and again, if you want peace in the world, if you want peace in your lives, pray the Rosary,” he said.

Msgr. Weiss spoke at the end of Mass, suggesting that those grieving can heal by “holding onto the virtues and promises given to us by Christ.”

He said the world is a “little bit darker because these 20 children were taken from us.”

“Someone asked us if we should turn off all the lights at Christmastime, and I said ‘absolutely not.’ These children were so excited that Christmas was coming, and even if we did, there would be 20 brighter lights in heaven right now, we wouldn’t need Christmas lights at all,” said the pastor, who has been meeting with victims’ families. “So they’ve added to that one star of Bethlehem, and hopefully we can follow….20 new saints.”

One of the girls killed in the rampage had been scheduled to play the part of an angel in the parish’s Christmas pageant. “We wanted to continue that pageant to honor her memory,” Msgr. Weiss said.

He also thanked teachers, who realize they have not just a job but a calling “to give to children the very best that you can.”

Of the families of the eight children from the parish who were killed, “every one of these families has said to me, ‘If it weren’t for my faith, I wouldn’t be able to go on.’”

Msgr. Weiss called on Catholics to “reprioritize our lives,” to make Sunday Mass once again more important than soccer games. “Let’s bring back to our families our faith,” he said. “Our children deserve to know about God.”

“We can put in all the security doors we want, we can put on duty all the police we want, but things like this can still happen,” he continued. “But if we change this world from a culture of death, which it’s quickly becoming, to a culture of life, then we don’t have to be afraid.”

He reminded listeners to remember the victims’ loved ones especially after the New Year, when relatives will have returned home and those still mourning will be “sitting alone. And it’s those days when they could use a pot of soup or a dish of pasta or just some of your time.”

Msgr. Gerald A. Doyle, administrator of the Diocese of Bridgeport, read letters from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI, and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, former bishop of Bridgeport.

Since the tragedy occurred, “my heart has been heavy, and I can’t stop thinking about the tragedy in Newtown, especially the victims and their families,” wrote the Archbishop, who was in Rome when the shooting occurred. “We cannot allow ourselves to lose hope, but especially now more than ever must strengthen ourselves through our friendship in Christ.”

“In these days of Advent, let us not forget, as we read in St. John’s Gospel, the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Msgr. Weiss asked people to pray for him and his two associate pastors. “This has been a real challenge to our priesthood, as you can imagine.” One of them, Father Luke Suarez, was recently ordained. “This is a very difficult way for him to begin his priesthood.…We have eight funerals to go through this week and it’s heavy on the hearts of all of us.” Msgr. Weiss said he himself was “really struggling with this.”

Local communities of women religious were present, and several members of the Sisters of Life, who run a pro-life retreat house in nearby Stamford, Conn., have been present for several days since the tragedy, in hopes of offering a prayerful presence for those grieving.

Several well-wishers from other communities in Connecticut, as well as people from Massachusetts and New Jersey, visited the church for its Sunday liturgy. A group of people from the local Islamic community came to the noon Mass to offer their solidarity and prayers.

That Mass was interrupted when state police evacuated the church in response to an apparent bomb threat.

Police were not offering details, whether it was a bomb threat or what, but about a dozen state trooper vehicles, including a large armored Humvee, stood outside the church as about 10 camouflaged members of a SWAT team, wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, carried assault rifles into the church, rectory, school and another house.

Police gave the all clear signal at the church at around 1:15pm, according to NBC News.

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