During the frenzied response to the devastating Newtown, Conn., school shooting last week, a policeman picked up one of the first-graders who had been shot. She was still alive, but not for long. The six-year-old lived long enough for the officer to say to her, “I love you.” And then the life slipped from her small body.
Deacon Don Naiman elicited gasps and cries from mourners as he related that story during the funeral Dec. 21 of Olivia Rose Engel.
“That officer was the voice of Jesus Christ” to the girl, Deacon Naiman said during his homily at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown. “And I am convinced that he gently passed Olivia to the hands of the Blessed Mother.”
He urged members of a large congregation that filled the church to likewise “be the hand of Christ…to these beautiful parents” and to others in the world.
It’s been an emotion-filled week in this bucolic New England town, and Olivia’s funeral was one of eight at the church — all for children who had not even made their first Communion. The final one was to take place Saturday, just days before Christmas.
Earlier in the day, at 9:30, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy presided over a moment of silence at town hall to mark one week since 20-year-old Adam Lanza allegedly shot and killed 20 first-graders and six educators at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. The bell at an Episcopal church slowly tolled 26 times as heavy rain and strong winds ushered in the first day of winter.
An hour later, hundreds of mourners filled St. Rose’s to reflect on the life of 6-year-old Grace Audrey McDonnell and to hear the pastor call for change.
“We have become a culture of death, where there is less and less respect for life and the dignity that every human person enjoys [because he is] created by God,” said Msgr. Robert Weiss. He acknowledged that people have proposed many ideas to “change things” in response to the tragedy, including gun control and banning violent video games. But he said that is not enough.
“Change happens within each one of us,” Msgr. Weiss told the congregation. “We need to change this attitude that is driving us away from everything that is right and good, everything God intended us to be in this world.”
He said that as a society, “We’ve become too busy for family, too busy for friends, even too busy for God.” He expressed hope that the tragedy would remind everyone about “what’s really important in life.”
As if recalling Gaudete Sunday from the week before, Msgr. Weiss was vested in a rose chasuble, while other priests concelebrating Mass wore the purple vestments of Advent. Twenty-six votive candles were lined up along the front edge of the altar, each with the name of a different child who perished in the killing spree. An urn containing the cremains of little Grace sat on a pedestal in front of the altar.
Introducing the Lord’s Prayer right before Communion, the pastor told Mass-goers that he liked to believe that it was a prayer that was going through the minds of some of the children in Sandy Hook School as the tragic incident was unfolding, “asking the Lord to protect them.”
The funeral for Olivia Engel followed in the early afternoon. Deacon Naiman preached as a small white coffin sat in the middle aisle. In the front row sat Olivia’s mother, Shannon, and father, Brian, holding a sleepy 3-year-old named Brayden.
“Our sacred duty is to bring Christ to the grieving family,” said Deacon Naiman, “to be Christ to this couple, to lift them up and take the burden from their shoulders.”
Olivia’s last name is the German word for angel, a term that has been used throughout the week to describe the 20 boys and girls who lost their lives. In fact, Olivia had been scheduled to play the part of an angel in the parish’s Christmas pageant on Christmas Eve, a show that Msgr. Weiss promised would go on, in honor of the children who perished.
At both Masses, Msgr. Weiss recalled being at a local firehouse the day of the tragedy, where parents were gathered, waiting for news of their children. Speaking directly to both sets of parents, he said he recalled watching them as the names of other parents were called, alerting them that their children were safe, but then seeing their reaction when some, including the McDonnells and the Engels, were asked to go to a separate room to receive what would turn out to be devastating news.
“And I saw you going outside, hardly able to stand up, wondering what you were going to do from that day onward,” the pastor said.
Conducting eight funerals in six days and attending all the wakes and counseling family members has been an extraordinary burden to the priests of the parish, and scores, if not hundreds, of parishioners stepped forward to offer help, material assistance and prayerful support. The parish’s Knights of Columbus council, which dedicated its own hall on the parish grounds in September, solicited volunteer help from other Knights councils in the area, and many Knights responded, taking up posts as ushers and doormen in the church, escorting guests from their cars and cleaning the church after each Mass. Timothy Haas, grand knight of Council 185 at St. Rose, said it’s been difficult to make sense of the tragedy but that parishioners were feeling “the support of the world.”
“When they’re able to focus on their faith and the redeeming power and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that helps them get through it,” Haas said. “Faced with eight funerals, the resilience has to come from somewhere. It comes from the grace of God.”
After all the funerals are over, the 260-member Knights council plans to discuss ways to provide ongoing support for the parish and grieving families who seek their help. “We’re trying to get our arms around it,” Haas said. He said he’d like to see the Knights involved in a renewed effort to support “the culture of life, in its broadest sense.” That would include, not only the issue of abortion but also “mental health, respect and love for each other, becoming a little more in a relationship with each other, as opposed to focused only on electronic communication and internet, but to really establish relationships, and relationships in faith.”
He expressed hope that the Knights at St. Rose will in the long term “keep up the energy that’s going to come out of this tragedy, which has caused people to come back to church, particularly in our parish.”