How people of faith can offer comfort — and fight for change — after mass shootings
Recent tragedies cannot be ignored, and members of the Catholic church are providing aid in multiple ways
Heartbreak and confusion have spread across the United States in the past month after more than two dozen lives were lost to gun violence in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Americans are mourning the loss of loved ones and neighbors as they wonder how best to speak up and become a catalyst for change.
On June 8, Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life brought together a group of Catholic leaders for a virtual panel and asked them to offer their wisdom to a broken country that’s unsure of what to do next. They discussed what people of faith can bring to ongoing debates.
One of the speakers was the archbishop of San Antonio, the Rev. Gustavo Garcìa-Siller, who served as a sort of spiritual first responder after the school shooting in Uvalde. He described what he encountered in the community and, specifically, what he witnessed in the hospital.
“I was able to see suffering, pain, a kind of numbness proper for a ‘shock’ experience, and a lot of tears,” the archbishop said, noting that he and other Catholic leaders did their best to provide support and a comforting presence.
The Rev. Garcìa-Siller said the best place to start when working to bring about change is to hold onto your empathy.
“One problem I see … is that still everything is looked at by politics. When it’s just that lens, people don’t matter,” he said. “Guns have been idols … and with these same, sacred arms, we kill people. … The person, the people. They must come first.”
Rhina Guidos, a reporter and editor for Catholic News Service, was also a member of the panel. Specifically assigned to follow the shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Tulsa, Guidos said her experience showed her the importance of self-awareness when advocating for others.
“How am I looking at this? How is my decision affecting the life of another person?” Guidos asked. “We need to look deep within ourselves, but I don’t think we are. We’re reacting more, and not listening.”
But Guidos also noted that, for some time now, the Catholic Church has been actively listening to the concerns of its members.
“Sometimes, I think there’s a reaction that (church leadership) doesn’t want to listen, but people will be surprised to find out that (church leadership) actually backs a lot of gun control,” she said.
Many members of church leadership have publicly denounced recent incidents of gun violence, Guidos noted. For example, Cardinal Blase Cupich, who leads the Archdiocese of Chicago, shared on Twitter that, “The Second Amendment did not come down from Sinai. The right to bear arms will never be more important than human life. Our children have rights, too. And our elected officials have a moral duty to protect them.”
“To see something like that from somebody so mild-mannered is really calling out power, and saying, ‘We have to do something here,’” Guidos said. “They believe exactly what you believe.”
The Rev. Bryan Massingale, professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, said he has highly prioritized identifying injustices and protecting those at risk.
“What happened in Buffalo was different because it was a hate crime, and hate crimes are intended to send a message,” he said. “That message was received … that this is a country where our lives aren’t safe, and where our lives don’t matter.”
The Rev. Massingale continued, “All too often we look at this as a ‘political issue,’ we don’t frame it as a ‘life issue.’ ... (We must) embrace the spirit’s gift of courage, to demand of our elected officials that they reflect the will of the people and protect the dignity of life both before birth and after birth.”
Sister Mary Haddad, president of the Catholic Health Association, echoed the Rev. Massingale’s sentiments as she spoke about the aftermath of shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde and Tulsa. She said she and her associates’ analysis of the Tulsa shooting brought new insight into the many ways gun violence affects our country.
“Our core institutions — our schools, our hospitals, our places of worship — they’ve all become victims. They’ve been weakened, and nothing’s being done,” Sister Haddad said. “Our hospitals and our clinics are now spending more dollars to increase security. Money that should be invested in patient care is being diverted to keep people from being shot in a place of healing.”
She added, “We must hold our elected officials accountable, and demand action be taken to address gun violence in this country through sensible gun policies.”
When “led by the spirit” or “making use of our own talents and gifts,” individuals have the capacity to become catalysts for change, the Rev. Garcìa-Siller said. It also helps to be creative, Sister Haddad said.
Creative is an apt description for the social advocacy work of Sister Judy Byron and the women of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment. Through shareholder advocacy, Sister Byron and her partners promote gun safety and responsibility from within the gun industry.
“A little known fact is that women religious have used their investments for shareholder advocacy for almost 50 years,” Sister Byron said.
With Congress now asking gun manufacturers similar questions that the sisters have asked for some time now, Sister Byron is hopeful that change really is possible.
“We cannot continue to let our children do the heavy lifting. We adults must stand up and demand that gun violence end,” she said.
Guidos noted that, in 2013, Pope Francis has called on the church to be something of a field hospital for people in need.
“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle,” the pope said, according to America magazine.
Archbishop Garcìa-Siller closed out the panel with a question to those who minimize or ignore the tragedy that is gun violence in the U.S.
“We have been losing lives,” he said. ”Children, young people, adults, and elderly, in hospitals, schools, and churches. What else do we want to lose? What other studies do we need to do of dead bodies? There are enough.”