Catholic chaplain helps families and survivors after Aurora shootings

Swedish Medical Center Credit Jeffrey Beall CC BY ND 20 CNA US Catholic News Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colo. / Jeffrey Beall (CC BY-ND 2.0)

At Swedish Medical Center, where 23 victims of a deadly movie theater attack were brought in the early hours of July 20, lay Catholic chaplain Marcus Ebenhoe is helping family, friends, and survivors.

"A lot of it's just helping people make meaning of what's happening," the lay chaplain told CNA on Friday afternoon. "I had someone who said: 'The person to my left and the person to my right both got shot, but I didn't. Why am I here? What purpose do I have in my life?'"

Ebenhoe is trying to help Catholics, and members of other faiths, make sense of Colorado's worst mass murder in over a decade, which took place during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" at the Century Movie Theater in Aurora on July 20.

Former medical student James Holmes, 24, is believed to have entered the theater through a rigged exit door, wearing body armor and a gas mask. Authorities say he detonated a gas canister and opened fire on the crowd, killing 12 people and wounding 59 before surrendering to police in the parking lot.

Many of the victims were brought to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood. Ebenhoe could not provide details, but confirmed that he had been counseling individuals who were directly affected, "as they are processing what has happened and what they have been through over the last 14 to 15 hours."

The Catholic chaplain is committed to "journeying with them through this scary and challenging time,"  whether by prayer, guidance, "or just providing an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on."

"Obviously, an event like this brings up many questions, and lots of fear and anxiety," he told CNA. Some wonder about God's purpose in permitting such acts of evil, while others wonder, "Why me?" – or even "Why not me?"

Ebenhoe tries to help them "get to the emotion behind the questions that they're asking," so that they can begin finding consolation and meaning in the midst of suffering.

Less than a day after the shootings, however, "a lot of people are still in shock." This means there are limits as to how much discussion is possible "without re-traumatizing people."

Some of the survivors "go from shock to anger." Others are calm and "just trying to process what's happening" on a factual level, "but at the same time, physically, they're shaking."

Ebenhoe's approach to tragedy is formed by his faith in Christ's resurrection and victory over death. But humanity must pass through death in order to share in Jesus' triumph, a paradox that has led theologians to describe the resurrection as a reality that is both "now" and "not yet" present.

"We're living in the time of the resurrection – but we're also in that 'not yet' time," waiting for "the fulness of the kingdom," the chaplain observed.

As Aurora residents confront the "brokenness of this human world," they can be assured of God's close identification with their suffering. God is "with us throughout this," and humanity has "a savior who suffered also," Ebenhoe recalled.

Through prayer, in particular, God gives victims of evil the strength to persevere in hope.
"I notice people praying the Rosary," Ebenhoe said. "They say: 'I haven't prayed the Rosary in 20 years, but right now this is what I'm grounded in, and this is what I need to help me through this at this moment.'"

While he would "never wish suffering upon anyone," the lay chaplain has also seen "a lot of transformation occur in people when they are in those moments of suffering."

These "moments of despair," he said, can lead to "a new experience and appreciation of God."

"Sometimes it is in people's suffering that they are able to get to the core of themselves, and the core of the Spirit of God," Ebenhoe noted.

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