This past Ash Wednesday, a day set aside by most Christians to begin the 40 day period of spiritual preparation for the celebration of our central belief of Jesus’ triumph over the forces of evil and death, the world witnessed yet another senseless act of violence targeting teenagers in their school in Parkland, Florida. Since the deadly school shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School some 150,000 Americans have been exposed to some kind of shooting on the campus of their school. Just to remind you of the 10 deadliest incidents brings home that the number of fatalities is mind boggling! Columbine, 1999 — 15 deaths, Virginia Tech University, 2007 — 33 deaths, Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012 — 27 deaths, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 2018 — 17 deaths, Umpqua Community College, 2015 —10 deaths, Oikos University, 2012 — 7 deaths, West Nickel Mines School, 2006 — 6 deaths, northern Illinois University, 2008 — 6 deaths, Marysville Pilchuck High School, 2014 — 5 deaths and the University of Arizona, 2002 — 4 deaths. These are just 10 of the 25 fatal shootings in school settings since 1999.
In his response to the fatal shooting that took place in his archdiocese, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said, “It is with great sadness I learned of the tragic shooting. I offer my prayers and those of the entire Catholic community for those affected by this senseless tragedy: we pray for the deceased and wounded, for their families and loved ones, for our first responders and our entire community to support one another in this time of grief.” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “I encourage us to unite our prayers and sacrifices for the healing and consolation of all those who have been affected by violence in these last weeks and for a conversion of heart, that our communities and nation will be marked by peace. I pray also for unity in seeking to build toward a society with fewer tragedies caused by senseless gun violence. We hope Congress will take up this issue in a more robust way, considering all of the varied aspects involved.”
After the horrendous killings that took place in Las Vegas last year the local Bishop Frank Dewane also called for a national debate on gun violence. He wisely said, “While acknowledging the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and related jurisprudence, we live in a fallen world with daily advances in modern technology. Some weapons are increasingly capable of easily causing mass murder when used with an evil purpose. Society must recognize that the common good requires reasonable steps to limit access to such firearms by those who would intend to use them in that way.” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was bishop in Denver at the time of the Columbine murders called for stricter gun control efforts by legislators. He said, “We’ve lost our respect for human life on a much broader scale and this is the utterly predictable result.”
There were five Jewish victims among them, four students and one school employee. The local Rabbi Mendy Gunick of the Chabad of Parkland said some of his congregants wondered if the assailant’s ties to a Tallahassee-based white-supremacist group had anything to do with the shooting. He answered, “It’s hard to see that, because Stoneman Douglas is 40 percent Jewish. While it seemed he had a vendetta against the school, he seemed to just be shooting at anybody and everybody.” Zachary Herrmann, president of NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, said, “Gun violence prevention is a long-standing priority of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, and in light of this tragic event, we call on not only our Jewish peers but all teens to strengthen their commitment to this effort.”
Christian leaders from the Parkland area were struggling with an adequate way to address the tragedy in their backyard. Parkridge Church, which met for seven years at the high school where the shooting took place teamed up with other Christian churches in the area to host a prayer vigil. The pastor Eddie Bevill said, “I’m praying that our churches, our church specifically and other Bible-believing churches in our area, that we will point people to Jesus. He’s the only hope we have. He’s the only thing that provides a future. He’s the only one who can bring peace where there is nothing but lostness and struggle and anger and fury and confusion…We just want to see Christ in the forefront of all of this.” Even Christian leaders far from Parkland added their views on the tragedy. Johnathan Alvarado, a Pentecostal pastor in Atlanta, remarked, “My heart, thoughts, and prayers are for and with the families and friends of shooting victims in Parkland. This tragedy on Ash Wednesday reminds us of how marred and diseased we are by sin. I’m still wearing ashes on my head and heart.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.