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In Newtown, Grief Remains as Community Rebuilds

John Burger - published on 01/28/13

“The community is still hurting and will continue to hurt for some time,” said Deacon Daniel O’Connor.

NEWTOWN, CONN.—The cameras and media satellite trucks are gone from Newtown, Conn., but the heartache is not.

Six weeks after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six educators before killing himself, priests at St. Rose of Lima Church here are still making reference to the tragedy in their homilies, Masses are being offered for the victims, and parishioners are grasping for answers.
Eight of the 20 children killed were parishioners at St. Rose.

“The community is still hurting and will continue to hurt for some time,” said Deacon Daniel O’Connor.

But, he added, if a tragedy had to happen, Newtown was in many ways well prepared.

“St. Rose is … reasonably well organized and has lots of ministries,” he said as he took a break between serving at the 10:30am and noon Masses Jan. 27. “It’s a very small and intimate community, and the Church here is very active. So as terrible as it was, we had our act together before and will have our act together again.”

Indeed, the six Sunday Masses are very well attended, and the multi-page parish bulletin lists many groups, ministries and activities. Among them: Knights of Columbus, K of C Squires, youth ministry, parish nurse ministry, Lift-a-Spirit Meal Ministry, Social Concerns, Pro-Life/Family Committee, bereavement ministry, natural family planning, Marriage Encounter, marriage preparation program, Eucharistic Adoration-Anonymous Apostles of Divine Mercy, Lay Missionaries of Charity, and job network support group.

The bulletin lists the Sunday collection for Jan. 20 as $21,776.

The parish also has a grade school and a religious education program. It holds daylong Eucharistic Adoration every First Friday.

“There’s a fundamental belief that good will prevail over evil,” said parishioner Michael Madden, as he left Mass yesterday. “Energy is being channeled into goodness, and people are using their talents to focus on those who were hurt, physically and emotionally, using different parts of their skill sets to focus on healing.”

That help has come from within the parish and from outside—often from complete strangers, thousands of miles away.

Soon after the tragedy, Pam Arsenault, director of religious education, met with teachers because many of the children and their siblings are in religious education. “They needed to know where we would go from here in the classroom,” she said. “There have been resources (books and CDs on helping children cope with tragedy) donated from around the world that we’ve put into their hands.”

Arsenault encouraged her teachers to “take your cues from the children. Open it up with prayer and the spirit of God will speak through the children. It’s been very peaceful.”

Jeanette Pagett, a parishioner with an 11-year-old son, said the tragedy has “brought us closer together. Our community has come closer together to help us through this.” She said that seeing what grieving parents are going through and how they’ve responded inspires her. “We’re following their lead,” she said.

Arsenault said that she soon realized that the parents of her students were “questioning,” so she asked herself, “What is the faith response to tragedy?”

“So we had a guest priest come in who spoke about grieving as a believer,” she said. “Interestingly enough, several of the parents (of children who were killed) got up and spoke about how they grieved as believers. They really witnessed to their faith. And I said to one, ‘You know, you really are a prophet, because you’re speaking for God,’ and she said, ‘That’s where I get my strength.’”

Arsenault added, “We’re witnessing many people coming back to the practice of the faith” because of the mass killing.

For the three priests and four deacons of the parish, it’s a “ministry of presence, reaffirming we’re here in solidarity,” said Father Luke Suarez, parochial vicar. “We’re here to pray, to be a support. I know from my own work with the families, it’s just to say ‘We’re here.’ Sometimes it’s difficult because we don’t really know what we can do to help, but just to be there to constantly remind and be present and say, ‘if there’s anything you need, we’re here 100%’ and reassure them we’re praying for them.”

As the community tries to move forward, he said, the clergy try to keep “focusing on the truth of the Gospel message and the hope that that brings to us. So it’s trying to present the Gospel [authentically] …as the Gospel means ‘good news,’ and how that sheds light on the darkest of all circumstances.”

Father Suarez, who was ordained in May 2011, said that meeting with grieving families has provided him with “great inspiration…in seeing faith being expressed and how that is their source of strength, their source of comfort, their source of consolation. They’re constantly expressing their belief that their young children are in the hands of God.”

Arsenault affirmed that “some of the parents are experiencing the presence of their children with them, the spirit of the children with them saying ‘I’m okay.’”

As for the question of how to prevent future violence, parishioners and clergymen agreed that some gun restrictions should be enacted.

“Before someone gets a gun license, require a basic psychological test,” said parochial vicar Father Ignacio Ortigas. “And don’t sell semi-automatic weapons.”

“It’s a combination of three things,” said Madden, who has three teenaged children and liked President Obama’s proposals for gun control. “Mental health, security in schools and gun control. I don’t think the 2nd Amendment was written for today but in a time and a country when guns were used for protection against other countries and animals. We shouldn’t allow semi-automatic rifles for recreation.”

“I’m a gun owner, and I have a permit,” said Deacon O’Connor. “Even before this incident, I would have said there’s no reason to have automatic weapons. You can’t own a canon, you can’t own a tank. My freedoms are limited by sanity. I can’t own an automatic weapon. It’s been against the law since 1936. I can’t own a handgun without a permit here in the state of Connecticut. It’s locked in a safe, and very few people know the combination. The argument that we’re having our rights taken away from us if we can’t have automatic weapons that have 30 or more rounds is bananas. … There has to be some sanity brought to the debate. The Founding Fathers said we have to right to bear arms. We don’t have the indiscriminate right to use those arms or to allow people with mental illness or proximity to mental illness not to register or have the appropriate paperwork.”

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