Ashes marked the foreheads of parents as they waited outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School - physical signs of the beginning of Lent, which would also serve as tragic markers of the crosses they bore after a gunman opened fire on the school last February 14, killing 17 teachers and students and wounding over a dozen others.
The massacre in Parkland, Florida, was the deadliest school shooting in the history of the United States, viewed by many as a turning point in America’s debates over gun violence.
The following month, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School would lead a march in the nation’s capital that drew more than half a million individuals, mainly young people, along with more than half a million others in cities across the country, to band together seeking tougher gun control measures.
While the U.S. bishops have advocated for a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence since the 1990s, in a statement following the Parkland shooting they said it was time for action instead of mere talk.
“In the words of St. John, ‘Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth,’” they wrote.
One year later, however, across the country, Catholic leaders and activists believe that efforts to make confronting gun violence a pastoral priority remain a challenge, with greater success locally than in the halls of power in both the Church and the country.
Thoughts, Prayers…and Action?
At Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Parkland, parishioners will gather on Thursday for a Holy Hour to mark the anniversary, and, in particular, the loss of a 14-year-old parishioner, Gina Montalto, a freshman who died in the shooting.
“The silence of adoration and prayer will be far more appropriate than any verbiage, which won’t satisfy anyone,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told Crux.
On the eve of the anniversary, Wenski said the Catholic community in South Florida remains “quite saddened” by the events of last year. In addition to prayers, he says it’s understandable that many people want to see more concrete action to combat gun violence, but he says that Catholics, like much of the country, are divided.
Wenski noted that the U.S. bishops have long advocated for “sensible legislation,” including a ban on assault weapons, tighter regulations for purchasing hand guns, and universal background checks. He also emphasized that the bishops, as pastors, also support treating mental illness in a manner that doesn’t stigmatize individuals.
While statements are one thing, Wenski said he’d like to see the country “move in the direction of greater gun control,” and says the activism in response to Parkland was the only “bright spot” out of a “terrible situation.”
“People in Parkland are not going to accept this passively,” he said.
Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina’s in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, told Crux that while the tragedy in Parkland caught the attention of the world, his parish has been seeking to fight gun violence for more than 15 years.
Following the Parkland shooting, parishioners from St. Sabina reached out to the young people in Florida while students from Marjory Stoneman invited students from Chicago to Florida where they spent a day together. The Chicago students then invited Parkland survivors to St. Sabina’s, establishing a “tremendous bond” that has been able to transcend class, creed, or skin color, said Pfleger.
While he said the situation of gun violence in Chicago has not received as much national attention, primarily because the students in Chicago are predominantly black and the Parkland tragedy affected a white community, he said the relationship between his parishioners and the Parkland survivors is evidence that “young people will be the ones combatting violence and the love affair with guns this country has.”
A Pastoral Priority
In 2015, when Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, he called out the arms trade and asked, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.”
Pfleger, who was in the audience, said those words linger in his mind on the one-year anniversary of Parkland, particularly when he thinks about the leadership of the Catholic Church on the issue of gun violence.
“We have a pope right now who has spoken volumes against violence, but it has not rippled throughout the leadership of the American Church,” he told Crux. “In Chicago, we have Cardinal [Blase] Cupich who I believe understands and shares the pope’s vision, but he is an exception.”
John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group based in Washington, told Crux he believes there is a greater need to make gun violence a pastoral priority, though he believes following Parkland, more Catholics recognize the urgency.
“I credit the remarkable Parkland survivors for energizing a renewed movement against gun violence, and my sense is more Catholics recognize this is a pro-life issue,” he said.
“But we still need more bishops and pastors making this a priority,” he continued. “The politics are hard because of powerful lobbying groups that don’t represent the views of most Americans, but Catholic leaders are well positioned to frame this as an issue of life and death, not left and right.”
In addition to outside lobbying groups, Church leaders are also facing their own diminished credibility following clergy sex abuse scandals. Even so, many Catholic bishops, spanning a range of ideological perspectives and geographic locations, took to Twitter to support last year’s March for Our Lives, which included active Catholic participation.
Perhaps one new area where Catholics have taken on the fight against gun violence is in the academy, as a direct result of the Parkland massacre.
Professor Therese Lysaught, director of the Graduate Program in Healthcare Mission Leadership at Loyola University Chicago, told Crux, “In response to the NRA’s attempt to silence healthcare providers, physicians and nurses responded with the #ThisIsMyLane hashtag-documenting how they, particularly, have to deal with the utterly horrific aftermath of gun violence on a daily basis,” she said.
Lysaught said that effort was part of the motivation to include a chapter on gun violence in her new book Catholic Bioethics and Social Justice.
“Healthcare providers are on the frontlines of this growing epidemic. 38,000 people died in the U.S. in 2016 from guns - roughly the same number of people who die from breast cancer each year,” she said.
“The lens of Catholic social thought requires us to change our social location and look at health care from the perspective of the poor and the vulnerable…for someone living in poor communities and communities of color, gun violence is a pressing issue,” she continued.
Lysaught hopes her scholarly work demonstrates that “Catholic social thought has something to say, that reasonable gun control is the only moral conclusion that can be drawn from the Catholic tradition, and that practical steps can be taken both within Catholic health care and beyond.”
One year after Parkland, Congress may remain gridlocked, but Lysaught hopes Catholics can help move the country forward.
“I hope we see more Catholics join the bishops in their local and policy initiatives, and that they offer their skills to parishes to help the Catholic community free itself from our bondage to the idols that fuel this epidemic-guns, violence, fear, and racism,” said Lysaught.