Denver, Colo., May 11, 2019 / 03:38 am (CNA).- When Fr. Gregory Bierbaum heard about the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, just two miles up the road, he drove to Rock Bottom, a restaurant where students who had escaped the school were gathering.
“One of my staff’s grandsons is one of them who escaped, so I went over just to be present,” he told CNA.
The STEM school falls within the boundaries of Bierbaum’s parish, St. Mark’s Catholic Church, and about a dozen of his parishioners are students at the school. The priest spoke with CNA on Thursday, May 9, which the parish designated as a day full of prayer, counseling, adoration and Mass for those impacted by the shooting.
While Bierbaum’s student parishioners at STEM were not physically injured in the shooting, they were in “close proximity” to the room of the shooting, and have endured some serious psychological trauma, he said.
“We just want to provide a safe haven for people to come and be together and interact with counselors if they need to,” Bierbaum said.
On Tuesday, May 7, one student was killed and eight others were injured when two shooters reportedly opened fire at STEM high school in Highlands Ranch, a suburb south of Denver.
Two suspects in the shooting are now in custody, and have been identified by authorities as Devon Erickson, and juvenile Maya McKinney, who identified as male and went by Alec, according to reports.
While a motive is yet unknown, the Washington Examiner reported that the now-deleted Facebook account of Erickson included a post in which he expressed his “hate” for “Christians who hate gays.” On Instagram, he reportedly posted that he was “covered in ink and addicted to pain.”
Bierbaum said he credited Kendrick Castillo and the other students who reportedly rushed one of the shooters for the small number of fatalities and injuries. Castillo, an 18 year-old senior and a Catholic, active as an usher and with the Knights of Columbus, was the lone fatality of the shooting and is being hailed as a hero for his life-saving actions.
Bishops from around the country offered their sympathies and prayers after news of the shooting broke.
Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, who chairs the U.S. bishop’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a May 8 statement that the shooting “reminds us yet again that something is fundamentally broken in our society when places of learning can become scenes of violence and disregard for human life.”
“As Americans we must deeply examine why these horrific occurrences of gun violence continue to take place in our communities. Action is needed to attempt to reduce the frequency of these heinous acts. I call on Catholics around the country to pray for the dead, injured and for the loved ones left behind and for healing in the community,” he said. “May Jesus who came that we might all have life in abundance, bring consolation and healing at this time of great sadness.”
Bishop Michael Sheridan is the bishop of Colorado Springs, the diocesan boundaries in which the STEM school falls.
In a May 8 statement, Sheridan echoed Bishop Dewane’s sentiments that lamented the frequency of school shootings.
“I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the shootings that occurred yesterday at STEM School in Highlands Ranch,” he said.
“I call on all the faithful in our diocese to pray and offer sacrifice for the students, teachers and families impacted by this tragedy, that through the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ, they may find healing and consolation.”
Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver said in a statement posted to Twitter on May 7 that “my heart goes out to all those school children, parents & teachers who were killed & injured in the tragic shooting at #STEMSchoolHighlandsRanch. Let us pray for them in this time of sadness and grief.”
Bishop Robert Cunningham of Syracuse, New York also tweeted his condolences: “Yesterday a tragic shooting took place just miles from Columbine High School. Along with the @USCCB I call on Catholics around the country to pray for the deceased, injured, and for healing in their community,” he said on May 8.
At St. Mark’s Catholic Church on Thursday, the day of prayer and counseling included adoration in the morning, Mass at noon, more adoration in the afternoon, and then a prayer service in the evening, which included counselors, priests, and fire and police chaplains who were available to talk with people.
“All of us are just here to listen, to talk, to allow everyone to come together, whether you and your kids were and are directly affected or if it was indirect. We are a family and we come together always, but especially in times like these, because one of the ways that God’s compassion is felt to us and known to us is with each other,” Bierbaum said in his homily during the noon Mass on Thursday.
Pax Christi, another nearby Catholic parish, hosted an hour of adoration and confessions on Thursday night for those impacted by the STEM shooting.
Ave Maria Catholic parish in Parker, Colorado hosted a night of prayer and conversation about the STEM shooting on Wednesday, May 8.
“I had always hoped I would never have to face a situation like the one we are facing in our community today. Whether your kids attend STEM or if you know someone who does, this has impacted our community, our youth,” Angelle M. Schott, MSW, the youth ministry coordinator for the parish, said in a post about the event on Facebook.
“I am not pretending to know what to say or even how to say it but I want our youth to know they are loved and to give them a safe place to share their concerns, worries, and/or fears without judgment,” she added.
Fr. Bierbaum told CNA that he was aware that times of tragedy like these are usually critical moments in people’s faith – it can draw them closer to God or push them further away.
He said that he encourages Catholics dealing with tragedy to beg God to make his presence felt in their lives during these times. He also said he wanted to emphasize that death and tragedy are not what God wants.
“God doesn’t desire death. This was not his plan,” Bierbaum said.
“(God) gives everyone complete and total free will because he wants us to love him freely, and the counterpoint to that is that free will can be used evilly, and Satan wants to take advantage of that,” Bierbaum said.
“So we legitimately say, God why do you allow this? Well, he allows it because if he didn’t, we wouldn’t truly be free…we wouldn’t be loving him freely,” he said.
“So that’s the key point that I try to emphasize is that God doesn’t will it, he doesn’t desire it, he weeps just like he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, even though he was about to raise him from the dead.”
“God would have wept for his son dying on the cross even though he sent him to do it. So it’s a matter of both-and, God loves us, but he also allows us to choose.”
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