Love in a Time of Pain: Ministering to victims and their families in Tucson
You never want to get bad news when you are far from home—to be told that a loved one has died or that some kind of disaster has taken place.
I arrived in Jerusalem on January 8 to attend an annual meeting of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences for the Church in the Holy Land. John Carr, a staff member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and I checked into the Knights Palace Hostel, grabbed a bite of lunch and wandered through the Old City. We joined the other participants of the Coordination for dinner, and I went to my room for the night.
I thought I would turn on CNN before I went to bed to catch up on what was happening in the world. Suddenly, I heard, “A shooting has taken place in Tucson.” I looked up to see a shocking scene. Outside a Safeway store, someone had shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She was being airlifted to University Medical Center.
I sat riveted to the television as the news unfolded. A girl of nine had been shot dead. Then I heard that Federal Judge John Roll had been pronounced dead at the scene. I checked other channels to see if what I had heard was right. How could it be? It was true. Six persons had been shot dead: Judge Roll, nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, Gabe Zimmerman, Dorwan Stoddard, Phyllis Schneck and Dorothy Morris.
The number of gunshot victims kept increasing. Several of Congresswoman Giffords' staff, whom I knew, were among those wounded. It was all too much. I broke down. I could not sleep. I just wanted to go home.
The next morning, I called Maureen Roll, Judge Roll’s wife, in Tucson. She told me that John had gone to Mass Saturday morning. He went every day. He told her that he wanted to stop by to say hello to Congresswoman Giffords who was holding a public event very close to where they lived and that he would be back home right after that. He never returned home.
I knew I had to go back to Tucson.
The enormity of the tragedy struck me further at the Tel Aviv airport, as I saw photos and read stories about the shootings in newspapers scattered around the departure lounge. Tucson was on the front page of every newspaper around the world. I read of places and people I knew well, a friend who had died, others who were wounded, the Safeway on Ina Road, the University Medical Center, the first responders.
I arrived home to a community in tears, a community in shock. The tragedy captured everyone’s attention and was the subject of every conversation.
At home, I began to hear stories of heroes, of courage: husbands who shielded their wives, protecting them from the spray of bullets; staff members of Gabby Giffords’ office trying to stop bleeding; grocery store clerks comforting and bandaging the injured; security and medical personnel taking control of a chaotic scene.
I wanted first to visit the hospital to pray with the injured and their families. News media trucks stood like a wall in front of the University Medical Center. People milled about. Some brought flowers, lit candles and stuffed animals to place on the lawn in front. Signs and notes to Gabrielle and other victims were strewn around everywhere. People wanted to do something, anything, to show their support.
Inside, I prayed with Mark Kelly, Gabrielle’s husband, whom I had met a number of times, and Gloria Giffords, Gabrielle’s mother. I prayed with Ron Barber, seriously injured, and Pam Simon, miraculously saved from more serious injuries. They are both members of Gabrielle’s staff.
As their pastors were helping the Green and Roll families make plans for Funeral Masses, I called our Catholic community to a Mass for Healing. The church of St. Odilia was filled to overflowing. Roxanna Green, Maureen Roll’s three sons and their wives came. People cried and comforted each other.
Before Mass, I talked with Christina-Taylor’s mother, Roxanna. St. Odilia, their parish, where Christina Taylor sang in the children’s choir, was just blocks away from the shooting scene. What could I say that might ease her anguish? “Your beautiful little girl is in the loving embrace of Jesus,” I told her.
The outpouring of love and concern that surrounded and enveloped the Green and Roll families was amazing.
Driving to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish for Christina-Taylor’s funeral, I saw that people of all ages had lined both sides of the road to welcome and to console the family. A line of “angels,” their white cloth wings extended, symbolized the angels who escorted little Christina-Taylor into paradise.
Before the Final Commendation, I shared with the hushed assembly what I had learned from Christina-Taylor’s parents just before the Mass had started. This little girl who danced with such joy, the only girl on her baseball team, this little girl with the wisdom of a woman, had been an organ donor.
Hundreds of people lined that same road to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton the next day for the funeral of Judge Roll. His childhood friend, Father John Lyons, gave a powerful homily filled with touching, funny and moving memories, and we heard in the remembrances from three of his colleagues and from his brother-in-law and grandchildren who John Roll was. He treated everyone from the most important to the least with the same respect and attention. He was a remarkable husband, a remarkable father and grandfather, a remarkable man of faith who believed wholeheartedly in the Lord, a remarkable judge who treated people with dignity. He was one of those individuals for whom the passage from Revelations would apply, “Of such as these, the world is not worthy.”
A week that had begun for me with bad news when I was far from home came to a close with my consoling witnessing that faith matters in times of crisis. We recognize our frailty. We come face to face with our fragility. In times of tragedy, the best in us comes out.
I experienced throughout that awful week of suffering a people fervent in prayer, a people caring and concerned for one another, a people doing countless acts of kindness to ease the pain and soften the grief.
From all around the country people of all ages sent cards, drawings, gifts to share with those who lost loved ones. Memorials sprouted up in front of the hospital, at Gabby Giffords’ office, at the scene of the shooting.
Religious leaders of all faiths came together, to pray and to comfort the community. Their actions bore witness to the true meaning of Christian Unity Week that we were celebrating during those days of healing.
In front of the Safeway where the shooting happened, in the presence of many employees who witnessed this tragedy, religious leaders prayed and sprinkled holy water to cleanse and reverence this place violated by an act of shocking violence.
In the midst of so much pain, I felt our community coming together and that our whole nation was with us, caring for us, wanting to heal our hurt.
As those injured have been released from the hospital, as all the dead have been buried and as Gabby Giffords continues her recovery and rehabilitation in Houston, the shock of that terrible Saturday begins to fade. But, we will never be the same.
Violence struck unexpectedly. News of death and injury overwhelmed us. But amid all the sadness, a community came together in prayer, standing with families who suffered the loss of a loved one and caressing with love those harmed. A time of grief gave way to a time of blessing.