Friday, May 25, 2018

Amid inexplicable tragedy, Newtown, Conn., houses of worship turn to words of faith

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Six-year-old Jennifer Waters came to Mass on Sunday at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church with a lot of questions.

"The little children, are they with the angels?" she asked her mother as she fiddled with a small plastic Sonic the Hedgehog figurine on a pew near the back of the church. "Are they going to live with the angels?"

All across this postcard-perfect New England town, children and adults alike had questions: How could a merciful and just God allow something like Friday's massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which claimed the lives of 20 children — none older than 7 — and six adults?

Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel wanted to make one thing clear to the classmates of 6-year-old victim Noah Pozner: "This is not an act of God. This is an act of a crazy man."

As police work to learn why 20-year-old Adam Lanza would kill his mother and attack an elementary school, residents of this close-knit town of 25,000 sought solace in each other's company and in the presence of God.

The Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church on Main Street, was at the Sandy Hook firehouse with the families who lost children and has conducted services and counseling sessions since. Her church will host two children's funerals this week, but on Sunday she projected calm as she spoke of questions unanswerable "in human terms."

She began a sermon with thanks in many directions — for far-flung clergy "who just got in the cars and drove here to help," for congregation members who pitched in, for the town's first responders who rushed to the school. Her own son is a firefighter who was there.

She called for prayers for all of them, for those injured — and for the gunman's family — but most for the families of "those lovely little children now gone from this place and their teachers who shielded them."

"Your tears and questions of faith have moved me," Adams-Shepherd said in a quiet voice. She told of receiving innumerable calls and emails, mentioning in particular a 16-year-old church member who urged all not to lose faith.

"Was God absent from our world on Friday? Indeed not," she said, citing the people all over the world moved by Newtown's ordeal and "flocking to churches and temples and mosques."

The shooting was in prayers at congregations in other U.S. towns. At Wyoming Presbyterian Church in Millburn, N.J., for instance, the congregation stood, held hands and sang the Sunday school staple, "Jesus loves the little children" — and many, weeping, put their arms around their own children, even if they were now adults.

A theologian once counseled "not to give simple solutions to life's tragedies" like the school massacre, Adams-Shepherd noted. "It is inexplicable in human terms."

"None of us will find answers alone to this unfathomable crisis," she said. "Keep loving and praying."

Later in the service, saying "we pray especially for," Adams-Shepherd slowly read the victims' first names, which echoed off the tall Gothic arches and stained-glass windows of the small stone church.

Across town at St. Rose, an overflow crowd of more than 800 people attended the 9 a.m. service.

Lanza and his mother, Nancy, worshiped there, and the son attended the St. Rose school for a time. Now, the church staff are preparing for eight children's funerals this week.

Boxes of tissues were placed strategically in each pew and on window sills. The altar was adorned with bouquets, one in the shape of a broken heart, with a zigzag of red carnations cutting through the white ones.

The Rev. Jerald Doyle, the diocesan administrator, officiated. Letters of condolence from the pope and Archbishop William Lori, who left the Bridgeport diocese this year to become archbishop in Baltimore, were read at the start of Mass.

In his homily, Doyle tried to answer the question of how parishioners could find joy in the holiday season with so much sorrow surrounding them.

"You won't remember what I say, and it will become unimportant," he said. "But you will really hear deep down that word that will finally and ultimately bring peace and joy. That is the word by which we live. That is the word by which we hope. That is the word by which we love."

The noon Mass was interrupted and the church evacuated after someone phoned in a threat. Police said nothing dangerous was found.

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