Looking back at this past year, the horrendous shootings that took place on Dec. 14 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., will cast a dark shadow on the whole year, much as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 became etched in so many people's minds simply as "9/11" without even needing to mention the year because everyone knew.
Sad to say, the depraved killer's rampage at the Sandy Hook School was not the only mass shooting of the year. Perhaps they are becoming so commonplace in our world that we almost forget the last one to have occurred. Remember the gunman who shot and killed 12 people at a movie theater showing the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” in Aurora, Colo., on July 20? If that gruesome attack has already started to fade from your memory, perhaps it is because thoughts of one are so quickly displaced by news of another.
There have been 70 mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and 2012, leaving 543 people dead (including the 27 fatalities from the Sandy Hook School shootings). Seven of those 70 shootings occurred this year. Sixty-eight of those 543 victims were killed this year.
President Barack Obama was absolutely correct when he said the following words at the Sandy Hook Prayer Vigil on Dec. 16: "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law – no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society."
While many people are calling for new gun control laws or improvements in the treatment of mental illness, they ignore the essential role of religion in building a peaceful society. In fact, some go so far as to blame religion, citing the terrorist attacks of Islamist extremists on Sept. 11, 2001 as evidence for their argument. However, the fact is that violence done in the name of religion is a perversion of religion.
In contrast, true religion promotes peace and harmony. The word "religion" comes from the Latin, re + ligare = to bind together again. Religion properly understood and practiced brings people together, forms a community and binds them as one. It is more than a mere mechanism for social cohesiveness and political stability, for God is the glue that holds religious communities together.
Yes, we must change, but that change must start with placing our faith in God and following his commandments.
Therein, however, lies one of our nation's greatest challenges. With the teaching of religion banned from public schools and with so many parents who don't take their children to church or teach them about God, where do children learn about the commandments that come from God? Where do they learn that it is a mortal sin to break the Fifth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill?"
Public schools can teach children that murder is against the law, unless it is perpetrated against a baby in his or her mother's womb or to end the life of a terminally ill person (in certain states), but they can't teach that God's punishment for murder is eternal damnation and suffering in hell.
It is no wonder therefore that Blessed Pope John Paul II years ago prophetically called this a "culture of death." So we must change. We must promote a culture of life and peace.
In his message for the World Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, "The attainment of peace depends above all on recognizing that we are, in God, one human family. ... Thoughts, words and gestures of peace create a mentality and a culture of peace, and a respectful, honest and cordial atmosphere. There is a need, then, to teach people to love one another, to cultivate peace and to live with good will rather than mere tolerance. A fundamental encouragement to this is to say no to revenge, to recognize injustices, to accept apologies without looking for them, and finally, to forgive, in such a way that mistakes and offenses can be acknowledged in truth, so as to move forward together towards reconciliation."
May God give us this grace. Amen.
Reprinted with permission from the Catholic Times, official newspaper for the diocese of Springfield.
Most Rev. Thomas John Paprocki is the Bishop of the diocese of Springfield, Illinois.