Mourners watch as the hearse containing the body of Sandy Hook Elementary School student James Mattioli drives past on the way to St. John's Catholic Cemetery in Darien, Conn., Dec. 18. The 6-year-old first grader was among the 20 schoolchildren killed Dec. 14 in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. His funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newton. (CNS photo/Lucas Jackson, Reuters)
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
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
“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
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.”
Undated photos from various memorial websites show the victims of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newton, Conn. Pictured, starting on the top row, from left to right, are Ana Marquez-Greene, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Emilie Parker, and Noah Pozner; Jesse Lewis, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Charlotte Bacon and Chase Kowalski; Daniel Barden, Jack Pinto, Catherine Hubbard, Dylan Hockley and Benjamin Wheeler; Grace McDonnell, James Mattioli, Avielle Richman, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy; Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Dawn Hochsprung and Nancy Lanza. (CNS photo/Reuters)