In the aftermath of the horrific Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six faculty members, St. Rose of Lima Church and its pastor, Msgr. Robert Weiss, were deservedly in the media’s spotlight. Msgr. Weiss was the first member of the clergy on the scene and later helped police officers break the terrible news to parents whose children had died in the rapid-fire shooting. The church also held memorial services and funerals for at least eight children whose families belonged to the suburban parish. (The young adult killer and his mother were reportedly members of St. Rose of Lima.) But the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in bordering Southbury, Msgr. Joseph Donnelly, also made the national news. About 30 families from the Sandy Hook section of Newtown actually belong to his parish. The Los Angeles Times reported some of “Father Joe’s” blunt remarks about the violence that has become a pervasive part of American culture and, specifically, the prevalence of military-style guns used in a number of recent deadly mass killings. The outgoing, usually mild-mannered 66-year-old priest was quoted in The Times as observing, his voice etched with outrage, “‘Assault weaponry? Who needs that in their house?”When Msgr. Donnelly, ordained 41 years ago, spoke to The Tidings five days after the shooting, his tone was decidedly calmer. But his opinion on banning death-dealing firearms hadn’t wavered. “Well, I’m not a gun person,” he said, “but even if somebody likes to go hunting or skeet shooting or something, these assault weapons are meant for a whole other thing — killing human beings. How that even is allowed, you know, that just ordinary citizens can go out and buy an assault weapon, is amazing to me. “And this incident, obviously, at Sandy Hook has shown what can happen, especially if these weapons are in the hands of somebody who’s not mentally stable. So it doesn’t make sense to have these guns so readily available. I mean, you wouldn’t hunt with weapons like the young man used here.”‘Seamless garment’When asked if gun control is primarily a prolife issue, Msgr. Donnelly didn’t hesitate. “Oh, very, very much so,” he declared. “I regret that sometimes the prolife brand has been identified solely with abortion. I like the late Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin’s concept of it being a ‘seamless garment.’ I think that really describes life issues much better.“Last spring we did the whole go-around in Connecticut where the death penalty was outlawed. And that is a life issue. And this — particularly since the possession of this kind of weaponry, obviously, is directed at taking peoples’ lives — is significant. So to see this as a life issue, for me, it’s very simple.”The primary gun used by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, wearing black military-style fatigues, was a Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle, while he carried multiple high-capacity clips or magazines holding 30 rounds each. He also had a Glock 10-millimeter hand-gun and a Sig Sauer pistol. According to Connecticut state police officials, the shooter who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, mortally shot himself in the head when first-responders got to the suburban school at the end of a two-lane road. All three guns were legally registered to his divorced parents, although the Bushmaster had been federally banned from 1994 to 2004. Many news outlets reported that Nancy Lanza, his mother, had a fascination with guns, spending hours with the younger of her two sons when he was growing up at a local target range. She allegedly told a neighbor that target shooting had a “calming” effect on him. State officials believe Adam shot and killed his mother with a .22-caliber rifle while she slept, before driving her Honda to Sandy Hook Elementary. He was estranged from both his father, Peter, and 24-year-old brother, Ryan, and had dropped out of Western Connecticut State University.Social teachingFather Donnelly knew that U.S. bishops had stated the need for reducing gun violence in the 1994 pastoral letter, “Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action,” and a 2000 statement, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.” The latter cautiously notes that “in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society.”But when it comes to modern-day assault weapons, “I wish our bishops would come out with a stronger and more consistent statement about them,” lamented Father Donnelly. “They regularly talk about the ‘consistent ethic of human life,’ but, especially given the publicity of these recent days, I would think it would be wonderful if they could endorse and say, ‘Gun control with these modern high-powered assault weapons is a prolife issue.’“I think our respect for human life is a very valuable part of our Catholic social teaching. I think we’re seen in many ways as one of the religious communities that really consistently tries to value human life and propose it readily in our more public conversations.“So I think something about these assault weapons needs to be included along with abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, war and poverty — and included specifically — because I don’t think a lot of times people see gun control as a prolife issue.”Msgr. Donnelly said the slayings hit “our town real big.” He’s spent a considerable amount of time just being present and talking to people, especially young parents who have suffered severe anxiety about their own children being harmed. A day after the shootings, Sacred Heart held an evening vigil, spelling out “hope” in luminarias, small paper lanterns, on the church’s slopping front lawn facing Route 84, the main street in Southbury. It drew some 700 people in a parish of 2,200 families and a town of 20,000 residents.Of course, the main concern on his parishioners’ minds is the eternal question: Why? Why would God allow this to happen? “My sense is God makes human beings with intellect and free will, and the ability to choose freely,” Msgr. Donnelly noted, echoing what he said in his homilies at all the Sunday Masses after the Friday morning shooting. “One of the parts of that is ‘I’m free to choose good or I’m free to choose to do evil. The second part is I have to live with the free choices of other people, and have the effects of that. “God hasn’t taken away that freedom — either mine or anybody else’s. That’s part of what it means to be human. And so, it’s not a question of God ‘allowing’ this to happen. God doesn’t intervene with human freedom. He allows us to develop our freedom to make the right choices and do the right things.”‘And Jesus Wept’Then the seasoned pastor spoke about an off-white marble statue titled simply “And Jesus Wept” near the OKC National Memorial in Oklahoma City to commemorate the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people on April 19, 1995. Sacred Heart puts a poster image of that statue in the church’s sanctuary and also on a banner outside to help comfort relatives and friends of parishioners who have died unexpectedly. The poster and banner went up, of course, after the carnage in Newtown. And he noted how in the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as crying about the soon-to-be-destroyed Jerusalem as well as over the death of his friend Lazarus. “So Jesus weeps along with us here in Connecticut in the face of evil,” he pointed out.Msgr. Donnelly said he knew all too well about the outrage over, and high hopes for, real gun control immediately after the Auroras, Virginia Techs and Columbines. And he’d heard “top of the agenda” promises by other presidents who pledged to protect American citizens from future mass murderers using assault weapons. But he also detected something special about the aftershocks of the shooting so close to his parish.“I catch a different tone, like in the public conversation,” he mused. “Here we are five days [at The Tidings’ press time] past the event and it’s still prominent on newscasts, and I’m still getting emails from different groups who are trying to do something. So I get a sense that it’s just different this time. And I think it has to do with the fact that there are 20 six- and seven-year-old kids in little caskets. I think that somehow touches peoples’ hearts in a different way.”After a moment, he said, “So it’s really an amazing, significant event. And it belongs, I think, in the middle of our preaching. Our faith really speaks to it; and we have a good history of Catholic social teaching that has a lot of light to bring to it. So I feel blessed to be able to have an opportunity to speak to it a little bit.” This is the first part of a series on the Catholic moral response to the federal legality and tremendous proliferation of military-style assault weapons in the nation today. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0104/guncontrol/{/gallery}