Twenty years ago, two teenagers opened gunfire outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Their massacre was premeditated and devastating; the boys also unsuccessfully planned to bomb the school with homemade explosives. They murdered 13 and wounded more than 20 others; finally they shot and killed themselves.
Twelve students and one teacher died the morning of April 20, 1999. The victims included at least four Catholics.
It was the most devastating school shooting in the United States up to that point, and would remain so until April 2007 when a gunman killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech.
Archbishop Charles Chaput, now of Philadelphia, was the shepherd of Denver at the time. More than 1,000 mourners turned out for the first three students’ funerals, over which Chaput presided.
"[Chaput] was very prompt in understanding the need to get to the scene and get to the families, the Catholic families, to provide them with support," Francis Maier, who was archdiocesan chancellor and special assistant to the archbishop at the time, told CNA in an interview.
The massacre happened at a time when school shootings were relatively rare, Maier emphasized. Columbine is in an upscale neighborhood, he noted, and it was a place where no one anticipated something like that could happen.
Maier said both secular and Church officials responded well when the shooting happened, but there were some moments at the beginning when people asked: "What do we do? How do we respond?"
“[Chaput] was engaged immediately. [The shooting] caught everyone by surprise, obviously, but he responded very promptly."
The archbishop stayed in touch with the parents of at least one of the victims for years afterward, thanks to the relationship forged in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Maier said he thought the archbishop was prepared by having been a pastor in the diocese before he was its archbishop, which he had been for 2 years in 1999.
"He had a long-lasting linkage to the event and the families that were involved," Maier said.
Maier said after the tragedy the Church was often asked how the shooting could be reconciled with the idea of a good and merciful God, and how the perpetrators— two kids— could do something like that?
"Delivering that message of God's presence and God's continuing love, obviously, was the archbishop's task,” Maier said.
“And in the funeral homilies that he preached, the counseling he gave to the families— a lot of counseling in a situation like this is just being present. Because what are you gonna say, you know? You can't say 'I know how you feel?' because you don't. And I think the archbishop understood that his presence and the presence that it represented as the Church's concern.”
The Columbine shooting prompted a national conversation about gun control and school safety.
Chaput testified before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on May 4, 1999. He addressed violence in media and popular culture— a widely-discussed topic in the wake of the shootings.
“The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink, and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up or drags us down. It forms us inside,” Chaput told the committee.
He noted that “The Matrix,” a film in theaters at that time hugely popular with teenagers, featured a great deal of firearm violence. Chaput wondered if the shooters had seen the film; and if so, he mused that “it certainly didn't deter them” from committing their violent act.
“People of religious faith have been involved in music, art, literature, and architecture for thousands of years, because we know from experience that these things shape the soul, and through the soul, they shape behavior,” Chaput said.
“Common sense tells us that the violence of our music, our video games, our films, and our television has to go somewhere. It goes straight into the hearts of our children, to bear fruit in ways we cannot imagine until something like [Columbine] happens.”
Chaput emphasized his view that tragedies like Columbine emerge out of a culture in which people are not being taught to value human life.
“When we build our advertising campaigns on consumer selfishness and greed, and when money becomes our universal measure of value, how can we be surprised when our sense of community erodes?” he wondered.
“When we multiply and glorify guns, are we surprised when kids use them? When we answer murder with more violence in the death penalty, we put the State’s seal of approval on revenge.”
“When the most dangerous place in the country is a mother’s womb, and the unborn child can have his or her head crushed in an abortion, even in the process of being born, the body language of that message is that life is not sacred and may not be worth much at all.”
Maier agreed with Chaput’s diagnosis of the problem.
"Young people are not being formed properly in the dignity of life, and older people, adults, are deeply into self-satisfaction and license."
"The disease needs to be addressed, not the symptoms,” he said.
“Fixing it is not going to be removing one particular way of committing an evil act. People will find other means to do those things if they are committed to doing evil things. So I think the underlying culture that produces Columbine is still with us, and, if anything, it’s worse."