Our Response to Virginia Massacre: Forgive, Pray
As the nation struggles for answers in the aftermath of the horrific Virginia Tech massacre of April 16 in Blacksburg, Va., we can find inspiration in the midst of the tragedy to forgive and pray as people of mercy. Our witness can testify to a hurting world that ultimately Divine Mercy — not evil — has the last word.
In the Face of Great Evil, the Call to Forgive and Pray
Consider the courageous example of some merciful people on the university campus at Virginia Tech who are providing a moving testimony to the power of forgiveness. Also, ponder the poignant example of the gunman's own family in not only apologizing for his "unspeakable actions," but in praying for his victims.
In the case of Virginia Tech, students and faculty on the campus have created makeshift memorials of granite stones adorned with letters and flowers to each of the people who lost their lives in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. They have even created a memorial for the mass murderer himself — Seung-Hui Cho, a deeply troubled 23-year-old senior majoring in English, whose writings "dripped with anger," according to one of his professors. At the memorial, some have expressed love and forgiveness for the gunman, who took his own life after killing 27 fellow students and five lecturers. (He also injured 29 people in the shooting rampage.)
In its April 23 edition, The Houston Chronicle reported on this memorable display:
Left behind on Monday [April 23] in Cho's position at the memorial were a pile of wilting roses and carnations, burnt-down candles and day-old letters forgiving Cho and expressing sympathy with his family.
"Sueng Hui, I hope that if I ever meet someone like you, I will have the courage and strength to reach out," said one signed David.
"We have forgiven you because we've been forgiven," offered a Christian who signed only MEQ.
"To the family of Seung-Hui Cho: We know that you are hurting too," said another.
Then, on April 25, Katelynn Johnson, a senior at Virginia Tech, said that moral responsibility had motivated her to add a stone for Cho to the memorial on campus. In a letter to The Collegiate Times, the campus newspaper, she wrote, "My family did not raise me to do what is popular. They raised me to do what is morally right. We did not lose only 32 students and faculty members that day; we lost 33 lives."
There was also the heart-rending apology of Cho's family on April 20, issued by his sister Sun-Kyung in which she apologized for what she called her brother's "unspeakable actions." "He has made the world weep. We are living a nightmare," she wrote in a 420-word statement. Sun-Kyung said that her family shares the pain of the families of the 32 who were killed, and remembers as well the 29 who were injured, and countless others who were traumatized by witnessing the rampage:
We pray for the families and loved ones [of those killed] who are experiencing so much excruciating grief. And we pray for those who were injured and for those whose lives are changed forever because of what they witnessed and experienced. Each of these people [the ones who were killed] had so much love, talent and gifts to offer, and their lives were cut short by a horrible and senseless act.
Reminded of the Example of the Amish
Now go back to last fall, Oct. 2. Recall the powerful example of the Amish and the grieving family of a different gunman in another terrible tragedy.
On that fateful day, our country reacted with horror as the peaceful and pastoral world of the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was shattered. A milk-truck driver — carrying three guns and seething with hatred — stormed a one-room schoolhouse in the town of Nickel Mines.
The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, ordered the boys and adults to leave the school and barricaded the doors with 2x4s. As police closed in, he opened fire on a dozen girls and then committed suicide. Three of the girls died in the gunfire. Two more died later of their wounds. They ranged in age from 6 to 13.
In a suicide note and cell phone call to his wife, the 32-year-old Roberts made reference to being angry at God for the 1997 death of his infant daughter and said he was haunted by memories of molesting two young relatives some 20 years ago.
Yet, in the aftermath of this tragedy, the Amish taught all of America how mercy and forgiveness can counter such violence in our society. In fact, nearly two weeks after the violence, Marie Roberts — the wife of the gunman — said that she was "overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy" shown to her family by the Amish following the murders of Oct. 2.
The Amish said that they forgave her husband, and they helped set up a trust fund for the Roberts family at a local bank. Marie Roberts has three children.
It seems that Katelynn Johnson and all the merciful people at Virginia Tech who have forgiven Cho — as well as the grieving family of Cho — do not stand alone in our day as witnesses to the power of forgiveness and mercy.
What about Each of Us Today?
As we reflect on these stirring examples of mercy and forgiveness from Virginia Tech and the Amish, what is our response? How can we forgive when confronted by evil in our own lives?
Some Tips for Forgiving
First, we can consider the advice of St. Faustina, who knew the power of gazing upon the cross to remind herself of Jesus, our ultimate model of forgiveness: "As often as I look upon the cross, so often will I forgive with all my heart" (Diary of St. Faustina, 390).
In my own life, I try to apply this advice by looking at a crucifix whenever I am dealing with anger toward someone who has hurt me. I place myself at the foot of the cross with Mary and remember how Jesus died for my sins.
I also find it helpful to recall the Lord's words to His executioners from the cross, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34). I think to myself, "If Jesus could forgive the soldiers who scourged Him, crowned Him with thorns, and then nailed Him to the cross, surely I can forgive this person who has injured me."
I am also reminded by Jesus' words not to sit in judgment over anyone who has wronged me. For all I know, the person may not be fully responsible for or morally aware of his or her actions. It isn't our place to judge. When Jesus comes at the end of time as the Just Judge, that will be the hour for it.
That applies even to wrongdoers like Cho who seem to human eyes cold and calculating in their actions. Take this account in the April 30 issue of Time magazine, which is well representative of media coverage:
A federal source [at the crime scene at Virginia Tech] said it appeared that as many as "a couple of hundred" rounds had been discharged. They didn't see a wild rampage, a maniac who had suddenly snapped: they saw calculation. The gunman's extraordinary effectiveness and, according to witnesses, well-planned, coldly methodical killing suggested someone who had trained himself in "execution style" killing, according to the federal source.
In thinking about Cho and our all too-human our tendency to judge others, I'm reminded of Pope Benedict XVI who, in his weekly audience of Oct. 18, reminded us that the Catholic Church does not teach that even Judas is damned to hell. "Even though he went to hang himself (cf. Mt 27:5)," the Holy Father said, "it is not up to us to judge his gesture, substituting ourselves for the infinitely merciful and just God."
Some Tips for Praying
I invite everyone who reads this column to join in praying The Divine Mercy Chaplet for all the victims, both living and deceased, of the Virginia Tech massacre. Let's also remember in prayer the soul of Cho and that of every human being who died committing acts of wanton violence.
As we pray the chaplet, let's take it a step farther. Join me in remembering all those, living and deceased, who have hurt you deeply. Do your best to forgive them from the heart.
We can examine our hearts in light of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us about the power of intercessory prayer in "forgiving those who trespass against us":
It is impossible to keep the Lord's commandment by imitating the divine model from outside [of ourselves]; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. ... It is there, in fact, "in the depths of the heart," that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession (2842-43, emphasis in Catechism).
In this passage, what God is ultimately about is a conversion of heart in us that will not only enable us to forgive others, but receive healing ourselves.
One practical way that I seek to apply this teaching is by interceding for a particular person who has hurt me whenever I am tempted to think of the person with anger or resentment in my heart. I first began to do this with a woman who had hurt my family deeply. Within weeks, the anger was gone, and I actually began to think favorably of her.
God had healed me and enabled me to be a blessing to this woman through my prayers.
A Closing Consolation: Divine Mercy Triumphs over Evil
In this life, we will face other tragedies as we have with the Amish and those killed at Virginia Tech. Yet, in the face of evil, we can be consoled by the truth that Divine Mercy will ultimately triumph over evil. Evil will never have the last word.
On Divine Mercy Sunday this year — which fell on the day before the Virginia Tech massacre — Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this reality. He shared with the faithful how an awareness of this reality in the Church is part of the Divine Mercy legacy of John Paul II:
The Holy Father, John Paul II, wanted this Sunday to be celebrated as the Feast of Divine Mercy: in the word "mercy," he summed up and interpreted anew for our time the whole mystery of Redemption. He had lived under two dictatorial regimes, and in his contact with poverty, neediness, and violence, he had a profound experience of the powers of darkness which also threaten the world of our time.
But he had an equally strong experience of the presence of God who opposed all these forces with His power, which is totally different and divine: with the power of mercy. It is mercy that puts an end to evil.
As I write this, I see fresh evidence of mercy and forgiveness triumphing over anger and hatred on the campus of Virginia Tech. It seems someone removed the stone marker for Cho's memorial at the campus. But that action didn't prove to be the last word.
As reported on April 25 by The Houston Chronicle, the message of forgiveness seems to have had the last word:
Cho's stone was gone by Monday morning [April 23], and was replaced by a small American flag. On Wednesday morning, there were 33 stones again [one for Cho and each of his victims].
This time, the 33rd was on the far left, unmarked, and slightly apart from the others. It was adorned with tributes similar to those on the other memorials: flowers, candles and beads in maroon and orange [the university's colors].
University spokesman Mark Owczarski said that the student organization did not place or remove the stone for Cho, and that it would not interfere.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.