Newtown, Conn., Dec 14, 2014 / 05:22 am
It was two years ago that Monsignor Robert Weiss rushed to the scene of the Sandy Hook elementary shooting, where nine of his littlest parishioners lost their lives, along with 11 of their schoolmates and six staff members.
And although the healing process is far from over, there have been some signs of hope and recovery at St. Rose of Lima parish in the tight-knit community in Newtown, Conn.
"The trauma is still certainly there, the awareness of the tragedy is certainly very present in our lives," Msgr. Weiss told CNA. "For the families every day is December 14 so their friends, their neighbors, are very in tune with that."
But the positive reaction of the victim's families, Msgr. Weiss added, has set the tone for others' responses.
"I think the fact that many of the victims' families have established foundations and are doing really positive things has been a real blessing for the community, and a lot of us take our cues from those families," he said. "To see many of them engaging in these really positive programs to benefit others has given us a real sense of purpose and hope."
Some of the families have been involved in outreach across the country, others have created scholarships in honor of their children and one family is providing camps for children with autism, Msgr. Weiss said. The parish, too, has seen new growth from the tragedy.
"Several new ministries developed during that time, particularly for our men and for our women," Msgr. Weiss said, "and a lot of the focus has been on dealing with stress, walking through life with a stronger purpose, and some of the psychological dimensions of this tragedy."
Celeste Vodola, the child care coordinator for a new women's ministry at the parish called Walking with Purpose, said the program was a way to reach out to people who might be trying to connect with their faith after the shooting.
"We were looking for something for people who might have returned to the church, even briefly following the events of December 14, that they would have something they could come to and feel spiritually safe sharing their knowledge or lack of knowledge about the faith in fellowship with other women," Vodola told CNA.
The ministry is a national program which was just brought to Newtown in October, and already the parish is seeing women of all ages responding each week. Vodola said the advertisement for the program has been largely word-of-mouth.
"We have to find a way to reach out to individuals," she said. "There are dozens of ways to reach out in the 21st century, and there's always someone who slips through the cracks."
Rodd Blessey, the high school youth minister with St. Rose of Lima parish, said he has seen an increase in numbers and in sincerity in those who attend youth programs at the Church.
"I see a yearning for Confession, an excitement about Mass and Adoration and about community," he said. "They have a unique understanding that they are preparing for eternal life with their God and that He has a plan for them."
His goal for helping his youth groups to heal, Blessey said, is to do what he's always known is best for them – lead them into a deeper relationship with God.
"All I know is that our call in life is to lead each other to Christ…to the only one who loves us unconditionally, the only one who can heal our hearts, the only one who can make good come from something so evil," he said. "So we will continue to turn to the Sacraments for our strength, reach out to our neighbors and friends in kindness and witness to the good news that is our God."
Different age groups had different reactions to the tragedy, Msgr. Weiss observed. At the high school level, many students had strong emotional reactions. There have even been a few who went away to college and decided to come back home to be closer to family.
At the seventh and eighth grade level, Msrg. Weiss noted, the kids are asking the tough questions about faith.
"We've seen the questions like, 'Why does God allow things like this to happen?'" he observed. "Most recently we've had a lot of questions about heaven, hell, purgatory and death, from that age group. They're preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, so they're focusing a lot on faith questions."
"There's not that kind of 'why do I have to be here' attitude, there's a real listening that's going on," he added. "People are just looking anywhere they can to find some peace and hope."
On the day of the tragedy, Msgr. Weiss had the heartbreaking task of informing families that they had lost a child in the shooting. He's been told it could take around 10 years for the community to really heal. He's been asked multiple times if he's considered transferring away from St. Rose of Lima, which has been home for him for 15 years now.
"It's like a marriage, the good times and the bad, the sickness and the health. I'm committed to this community, so I don't see a need for me to leave," he said. "We had some (people leave), so it created a little bit of instability for people."
"It's not that I'm trying to be a hero or tough it out, I just think the stability is important, and as of right now I just think this is the place where God wants me to be."
Msrg. Weiss says he and the whole community have been grateful for the support they've seen since the shooting.
"We're still deeply impacted by it, so we're still very appreciative for the prayers and the concern and support we're receiving, it's really helped."
When asked what others can do to help, Vodola said the most important thing people can do is to strengthen their own communities.
"At the time of the event, so much (material support) came into our town that it was overwhelming, and we're grateful for it," she said, "but since then, people need to reach out to their own community, instead of saying we're going to send these things to these people in need who are far away."
"It doesn't matter how well put together you look on the outside, everyone has struggles, so it's really important that people are reaching out to those who are right around them," she said. "That's how people can most help make our world a closer community."