The spiritual lessons of a school shooting on Ash Wednesday

Parents wait for news after a reports of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

The sun rises as I retrieve Thursday’s Los Angeles Times from my driveway. On the front page, the indelible image from Wednesday’s high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., is of a woman, presumably a mother, crying, her arm clasped tight around another parent. The forehead of this present-day Madonna wears the vestige of a black cross, drawn in ashes. The photo makes me relive the act of having a cross traced on my own forehead only one day prior. The accompanying news story describes how 17 people were shot dead and at least a dozen others were wounded. It was Valentine’s Day. For us Catholics, it was also Ash Wednesday.

We receive our ashes as a sign of repentance, of our yearning for God’s forgiveness, of our intent to live our faith more truly in the face of our mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” says the priest or lay minister, blessing us with a blackened thumb. The ashes that mark our foreheads only last for a day, but the mark this makes on our hearts is meant to endure for the entire 40 days of Lent.

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And so, how sadly, tragically, wretchedly fitting is the front-page photo from this Ash Wednesday. We will carry these stories with us. Again, again. Once again in our gun-adoring nation, students and teachers, supposedly safe at school, are never coming home. Once again, parents and family members wait with dread to learn if their dear sweet loved ones are among the dead. Once again, we hear people say how they never thought this would happen in their community. At their school. To their neighbors, their coaches, their teachers, their children. Once again, our nation needs to repent of our ways and turn away from sin.

May we repent as we worship at the altar of the gun, even to the point of sacrificing our own children.

May we repent, and may God forgive us, as we worship at the altar of the gun, even to the point of sacrificing our own children. May we repent, and may God forgive us, as we allow the moneyed lobbyists to speak for us, and to subvert the popular will to curtail the ubiquity of military-style weapons among us. May we repent, and may God forgive us, as we offer “thoughts and prayers” that cost us nothing instead of real and lasting answers to the hatred we bear each other, to the fears that drive us to kill, to the violence that permeates our lives.

And may we find the strength to overcome our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness: because just like after every mass shooting, most Americans will sympathize with the pain of the bereaved families, and then move on with our own lives. We shield ourselves from the thought of the missing faces at the dinner table, at Easter, at graduation, of the teenagers who will never be a day older, of the educators who did the brave things their calling compelled them to do for their students, of the dozens of funerals soon to take place in each new stricken town. It is all too much. There are so many tragic news stories about the guns that, in spite of the National Rifle Association’s rhetoric claiming otherwise, do kill people: children, students, teachers, spouses, soldiers, young people, old people, sad people, innocent people. We have compassion fatigue. We turn off our empathy. We can hardly bear to think of the most-recent dead as our own. So we do not.

But today, with ashes faded from our foreheads but not from our hearts, let us think of them. Let us claim them as our own. Let us hold them gently in our mind’s eye. Let us pause and mourn their lives abruptly ended. Let us promise them that we will honor their memory by engaging in fruitful solutions to the social ills that plague our country and steal too many lives. And lest we get bogged down in shouting matches over legalities, let us resurrect our capacity for both empathy and action. Let us stand on the common ground of love.

Today, with ashes faded from our foreheads but not from our hearts, let us think of the dead. Let us claim them as our own.

Lent is for starting over, but some things cannot be redone. We cannot wake the dead, but perhaps we can step onto the road of repentance by actively seeking God’s mercy. If we pray to be instruments of God’s peace, maybe we can start by not letting our surviving children down. The cross of ashes on the front page cries out for us to trudge the road to Lenten forgiveness with faith, with purpose, with persistence of heart, with trust in the God who loves us hugely in spite of our sins.

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William Bannon
5 months ago

Google, Valerie ...the murder of Rachael Anderson in Ohio last week. While I agree with you on military type weapons, young women living alone should be taught security by their parents. Rachael should have had a chain on her apartment door because most home invaders come right through the front door that people answer out of the obligation of being welcoming....and home invaders ( in this case, a known sexual predator) know you and your daughters feel obliged to be welcoming. Second, Rachael should have had a pistol behind her back in case a big man like the one she faced...ran at the door to burst the chain.
She had neither chain nor pistol. She's dead, he's captured but he'll be watching tv for decades to come in prison and lifting weights. You have daughters...have them read the Rachael Anderson death. Small revolvers don't jam like glocks do...if a bullet fails...you just pull the trigger again. Chain and a small smith and wesson revolver...should be the plan of every girl living alone in the security aspect....and a door hole to see who is knocking....which might warn to not even open the door even on a crack. They will burst the chain but that motivates the girl to use the gun. Never let a predator talk while moving forward....now they are half way to the gun. Tell them go back....they move forward instead...shoot. Listen to no con talk as they move forward. They might pose as innocent and want directions...tell them to seek such from a male.
They need a bathroom....tell them to seek such from a male. Your ideology could get your daughters killed one day. I have two guns....I worship neither gun. I fought a criminal who broke in and he said he might one day get me with a pistol. I sleep well because I have gun defense and motion detectors to warn me of anyone entering a window or door.

Thomas Romig
5 months ago

With all due respect, I find suggestions that more guns are the answer to be lunatic. With 5% of the world's population, we have nearly half of the world's civilian-owned firearms. Thus it’s no surprise that, as reported in The Economist, "America's gun related murder rate is 25 times higher than a group of 22 other developed countries, according to the American Journal of Medicine." How many of the guns people get to feel "safe" end up as murder weapons or suicide weapons? (20,000 suicides each year using firearms.)

William Bannon
5 months ago

So Valerie and I agree against military style weapons but you must troll the reasonable precautions reality demands of girls living alone. Thanks for the troll experience.

ALFRED CHAVEZ
5 months ago

Mr. Bannon, why are you so afraid? The odds of the scenario you describe are infinitesimal. Just look at the statistics of the number of people killed accidentally because guns happen to be available, even for the kind of self-defense you describe.

So why live in such fear? We should expect to die one way or the other, our faith alone is what we need, not more guns.

William Bannon
5 months ago

Alfred, I had a man in 2015 come through my living room window and after a fist fight out on the street that I won, he said he might be back with a pistol....but thanks for the infinitesimal tip.
I'll cherish it always.

Stanley Kopacz
5 months ago

All in all, I'd rather have a couple slaughterbots at my command. Guns are so passé.

Christopher Lochner
5 months ago

To the author: I realize you are very upset and have to attack someone but please do not bring Our Lord into your politics. The Lord is saddened by any form of violence and He does not specify the tools of usage. Guns kill as do knives etc, we are always capable of violence. Are we shocked by the shear numbers here? If the murders were spread out over a period of time, like in most inner cities, would this be more acceptable? Is mental illness somehow and bewilderingly secondary? If the perpetrator killed the unfortunate by blowing himself up would there be a sigh of relief, as in, at least there were no firearms involved? (See Oklahoma City) Balderdash! "Gun adoring" is an unchristian and sinful way to paint anyone disagreeing with your views. I'd much rather know someone who is gun adoring than murdering. Consider the last statement. There IS a difference. And who do you know who actually adores a firearm?.... I thought so!... Yes, let us walk the path in search of a solution but do so humbly and lacking in the supposed moral superiority of any position.

ALFRED CHAVEZ
5 months ago

Mr. Lochner, perhaps you should pay attention to Jesus's command to Peter after he cut off the ear of one of those who came to arrest him. "Put your sword into its scabbard...." Had it been today He might have said, "Holster your gun, Peter...."

No one denies we have a right to self defense, but we have a greater calling than that. Bodily death is not the worst thing that can happen.

Christopher Lochner
5 months ago

But that was my point. Jesus cries over the violence. Murder by whatever method is still murder. It used to be you could buy a handgun from a Sears store during the depths of the depression and sleep out in public parks. The violence was not nearly as pervasive. The youth were not disconnected to the point of becoming monsters. What has changed and how can we fix it? The gun lobby is the monster under the bed and not the real one at the door.

John Salomone
5 months ago

Please..... do not be so condescending to the author of this beautifully written piece. We have a mass murder epidemic of children and young people in our country, mostly carried out using a military weapon of war. As a 30 year Army veteran, including Viet Nam, I understand the value of the AR-15, M16 and M4 to the combat soldier. Having millions of these weapons on the street, 5 to 8 millions according to USA Today, makes absolutely no sense to me. In addition, don't compare the killing capacity of a knife to an AR-15; or the difficulty buying explosive components compared to the ease of purchasing an AR-15 And finally, my Lord wants to be part of the solution.

Douglas Fang
5 months ago

“… my prayers and condolences…” – Up to a point, these words become empty and meaningless. America is coward and weak against the gun lobby. The Church and “pro-life” lobby are coward and weak against the gun lobby. American society is stupid to be deceived blatantly by the gun lobby – “…there is no relationship between these mass shootings and the proliferation of guns, it’s all because of mental illness…” as if the two can be treated independently.

It’s all about math, statistics, and probability, folks:
- There is an increasing number of people with mental issues in today’s society due to many factors
- There are too many guns circulating in the country, including semi-automatic weapons

The above 2 factors together will create a fertile environment for these mass shootings to keep on happening with increasing frequency.

Shame on people who are too afraid to speak up against the gun lobby including POTUS. In his remarks, not a single words about guns, it’s all about mental problems! Mental problems my ....!

“My message to lawmakers and Congress is: Please, take action,” said David Hogg, a student who survived Wednesday's mass shooting, “What we really need is action. We can say, ‘We’re gonna do all these things. Thoughts and prayers.’ What we need more than that is action. Please. This is the 18th [school shooting] this year. We’re children. You guys are the adults.”

Christopher Lochner
5 months ago

That you would disregard the issue of mental illness indicates a woeful and frightening understanding of modern times. As someone just said, our children are broken. Even if homicides with hanguns were removed from a compilation of all USA murders we are still double that of Great Britain so yes mental illness is everyone's ###.

Douglas Fang
5 months ago

I never disregard or trivialize the issue of mental problems. It is a real and growing sad fact of modern time. Data has shown that the number of people diagnosed with mental issues is at the highest in history. My point is that mental problems coupled with the proliferation and easy access to weapons, especially semi-automatic guns, is the root cause of these mass shootings. Blaming on mental illness alone is dishonest and deceptive.

Tim Donovan
5 months ago

I find your observation that "America is coward and weak against the gun lobby" to be compelling. However, I disagree that "The Church and 'pro-life lobby are coward and weak against the gun lobby." Many of our bishops have spoken out for years for stringent gun control laws. Regarding most pro-life groups, they are focused on restoring protection to innocent unborn human beings from the violence of legal abortion. How? Through legislation, education, and numerous alternative -to-abortion centers. Since the 1973 Supreme Court decisions Roe and Doe, abortion is legal for any reason up until the time when the unborn infant (fetus-which means "young one" in latin) is viable. There are about 1 million abortions each year in our nation. I'm a former long-time Democrat who reluctantly registered as a Republican several years ago. I fully support stringent gun control laws, oppose capital punishment, support reasonable laws to protect our environment (I did read and agree with Pope Francis ' encyclical Laudato Si), and support war only as a last resort after intensive diplomatic efforts have been exhausted. Although I 'm obviously not a pacifist, I respect their convictions. I might add that Rev. Daniel Berrigan spoke out against abortion, and once took part in a public demonstration outside an abortion center. Years ago, Berrigan said in a speech to the Catholic Peace Fellowship, "Abortion is war and war is an abortion." Sister Helen Prejean, who is a noted opponent of capital punishment and favors the right to life of convicted murderers, is against abortion . I might add that for years I've been a pen pal with a man sentenced to life in prison near Philadelphia. Without boasting, I occasionally send him modest contributions for his personal needs. He's a devout Jehovah's Witness, and I believe he's reformed his life from our correspondence. Ironically, he believes the Bible condones capital punishment, which I strongly oppose. I also support reasonable government assistance to the millions of Americans in need. Among other people, these include people who are disabled, (I'm a retired Special Education teacher who taught students with brain damage), homeless, senior citizens, veterans, as well as people who are seriously ill, addicted to drugs, abused (physically or sexually) or mentally ill. I have been both a patient in and visitor to mental hospitals, and had brain surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital for obsessive compulsive disorder. I'm not looking for sympathy, as I know as a 55 year old nursing home resident that many people have far more serious problems of disorders than me. For instance, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, as well as people with severe physical disabilities.
I apologize for this inordinately lengthy post. I certainly support greater funding for mental health services. As an aside, when my late Dad passed away in 1994, I found a handgun in his bank safety deposit box. I immediately turned the gun into the police. So I hardly think that I "worship" at the altar of guns, as this excellent writer puts it so well. Two final points. I agree that there are far too many guns of all types in our nation. I'm especially concerned when people use guns to commit suicide. Handguns are frequently used when people commit suicide, and many fun deaths are from people ending their lives. A good friend and former co-worker ended her life in 1994, which was devestating.
I do believe that support for the violence of legal abortion disqualifies a politician or candidate from holding office. With respect, I think that many Americans are so-called single -issue voters. It would be tedious to list all the issues that people use as their single issue when choosing an elected official. Of course, many members of the National Rifle Committee as well as fun control advocates are so-called single issue voters. Finally, supporters of the powerful political action committee Emily's List support only Democratic women who favor legal abortion for any reason. I'd be overjoyed if there were a significant number of candidates who favored the consistent ethic of life. However, from my examination of the positions and voting records of candidates and elected officials, sadly there are very few. But as Pope Francis has wisely observed, "Abortion is the death penalty for the unborn." I feel that ending legal abortion, capital pupunishment, as well as enacting stringent gun control laws are crucial concerns for our nation. Finally, as a man who has much experience regarding mental illness (both myself, as well as having friends and a deceased aunt who was mentally ill. I believe that more funds should be allocated towards the treatment of mental illnesses, both for the sake of the ill, the community at large, as well as to by reduce deaths from gun violence.

David Blyth
5 months ago

Our major problem is societal values.
In the absence of firearms, a disturbed individual will use another resource to maim or kill.
What has changed is not the access to firearms but people's attitudes.
Let's address the cause and not the symptom.

Christina Slentz
5 months ago

Thank you for your brave reflection, Valerie! I think inviting Christ fully into our lives demands looking at our world through a lens of faith, even (especially?) at times like this. I struggle that it means our answers don’t always fit into neat political boxes because we may find ourselves effectively “disenfranchised,” but this is our calling. I hope the commentators with less than fruitful shares might reflect on this notion and consider your words more deeply. They are so very well expressed!

Christopher Lochner
5 months ago

Less than fruitful shares?? Surely you aren't elevating some over others because of a difference of opinion are you? Inviting Christ into an individual life guarantees neither rightness nor righteousness. Disagree because of the words but don't judge as to how much of Christ is in anyone on this site. Only the Lord knows of this. And forgive me if I have done so for it is sinful.

Douglas Fang
5 months ago

The glaring flaw of the above argument is that it completely fails to accept a fact that even a disturbed individual may use another resource to maim or kill, it will not be a massacre. The damage will be a lot less severe.

Australia is a most visible example. Just Google “No mass shootings in Australia in 20 years: How did they do it?” to see it. “…Following enactment of gun law reforms in Australia in 1996, there were no mass firearm killings through May 2016…” - The mass shooting that prompted Australia’s crackdown happened in Tasmania, in 1996, when 28-year-old Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people in a café. Another 23 were injured.

Christopher Lochner
5 months ago

This is why I am so disturbed when it becomes a numbers game. My home town of Baltimore had over 300 murders out of a population of 600,000 yet none of them were mass murder so less of an event?!!?

James Haraldson
5 months ago

Stop worshiping at the altar of liberal cliches and lying to yourself about your concern. First there is no such thing as "military type weapons." These weapons are functionally no different than hunting rifles. Second, these tragedies are made more common due to the attitudes of you and other liberals who believe that plumbing solutions are the way to deal with a culture of moral nihilism aided and abetted by the trash anti-life relativistic moral theology of publications like America.

James MacGregor
5 months ago

Heard it all before. This kind of story sounds somewhat more credible when coming from a conciencous objector

James MacGregor
4 months 3 weeks ago

Or from a schoolteacher with years of experience with the erosion of parental guidance for their children. Apparently few want to see themselves as responsible. It’s easier to avoid the real issues and instead demand whacko “gun control ,” armed guards in schools, and armed teachers.

Carol Cox
4 months 4 weeks ago

My eyes are brimming with tears after reading your piece - so eloquently and beautifully masterful! Thank you for this prayer for all of our souls. I will cherish it.

Christopher Lochner
4 months 4 weeks ago

Well, it's a start. We have to find out why the FBI failed to act on the tip and fix this safety check which was in place but failed disasterously. If laws in place dont' work properly then nothing will change. And Senator Feinstein wants to raise minimum age for purchase of such an item to 21. These are excellent first steps. Now if we can destigmatize mental illness so individuals need not, in reality, be very brave to admit to such and receive treatment, and which is a tall order given prevailing prejudices, maybe we can begin the very, very heavy lifting involved in bettering the situation. Call your Senator and express your opinion. Do not vilify those who disagree. And don't curse the rain.

rose-ellen caminer
4 months 4 weeks ago

The FBI failed to act because the threat was not made by someone with an Arabic name and or some such indication of even possible [political] terrorism. Not considering a threat to shoot up a school absence a political motive, a terror threat, is a political choice embedded in our laws. The FBI's hands WERE tied at least regarding his online post about wanting to be a school shooter. The fbi has said that only when "national security" is at stake could they have proceeded further. Implying that the law regards being killed and terrorized by a [political] "terrorist" is worse then being killed and terrorized by an apolitical mentally ill person. Had he posted "God is great in Arabic" on his post expressing wanting be a school shooter,every alphabet agency would have gotten involved and he would have been located and either charged with making a terror threat, or a he would have been placed on a terror watch list and prohibited from owning a gun, regardless of there being no specific place and date mentioned in his ominous post. No one; in law enforcement, politics, media, punditry, will address this salient and reprehensible fact.

Douglas Fang
4 months 4 weeks ago

Finally, is this the beginning of something for real? Let’s hope and pray…

“A prominent Republican political donor demanded on Saturday that the party pass legislation to restrict access to guns, and vowed not to contribute to any candidates or electioneering groups that did not support a ban on the sale of military-style firearms to civilians.

Al Hoffman Jr., a Florida-based real estate developer who was a leading fund-raiser for George W. Bush’s campaigns, said he would seek to marshal support among other Republican political donors for a renewed assault weapons ban.

“For how many years now have we been doing this — having these experiences of terrorism, mass killings — and how many years has it been that nothing’s been done?” Mr. Hoffman said in an interview. “It’s the end of the road for me.”

James MacGregor
4 months 2 weeks ago

Perhaps so much has been posted here to make my contribution seem weak. But, here goes. I grew up in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. At the time NYC had the most restrictive gun laws in our country - the Sullivan Act. When I was 10, I was sitting on the stoop one day when a man came over to me and asked if I would like a gun. I gave him $10 and he gave me a Star .25 caliber semiautomatic pistol with magazine and cleaning kit. I had that gun until years later when I finally disassembled it and put it into the garbage piecemeal.
Every time gun control comes up I am reminded of the effectiveness of the Sullivan Act in preventing the sale of that gun to me.

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