Photo: Felix Carroll
Embraced by The Divine Mercy
By Barbara La Porte
On Monday, April 16, 2007, a student with a history of mental illness went on a killing spree at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. It was the deadliest school shooting in our nation's history. In all, 32 people were killed. My son Matthew was one of them.
I would like to share with you how my devotion to our Lord, The Divine Mercy, has helped me. Christ had laid the foundation for my spiritual healing before the tragedy. I know He continues to give me blessings, strength, and hope today.
For those of you who don't know, between 1931 and 1938 a Polish nun named Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-38), received a series of revelations that we know of today as The Divine Mercy message and devotion. Now known throughout the world as St. Maria Faustina, she was designated by our Lord not only to remind the world of the great mercy of God as revealed in Sacred Scripture, but also to teach new forms of devotion to The Divine Mercy and to show a childlike trust in God and love of neighbor.
Through St. Faustina, our Lord made many promises for those who turn to Him in trust — promises of salvation and victory over our enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death.
I believe in our Lord's promises.
April 15, the day before, was Divine Mercy Sunday, also known as the Feast of Mercy. Our Lord told St. Faustina, "On that day all the divine floodgates through which graces flow are opened (Diary, 699).
As Jesus instructed through St. Faustina, I had prayed The Divine Mercy Novena starting on Good Friday. For each of the nine days leading to Divine Mercy Sunday, our Lord gave St. Faustina a different intention, including for lukewarm souls. Our Lord instructed, "On each day you will bring to My Heart a different group of souls, and you will immerse them in this ocean of My mercy, and I will bring all these souls into the house of My Father" (Diary, 1209).
I especially prayed for my son Matthew who had become lukewarm in his faith. I wanted him to grow closer to our Lord and attend Mass regularly.
As I left church that Sunday I was filled with an incredible peace.
The following day, an undergraduate student, armed with semi-automatic handguns, made his way through two separate campus buildings shooting indiscriminately.
No News Was Bad News
Born on Nov. 20, 1986, Matthew grew into a quiet and reflective young man. When he did talk, the things he said were either profound or very funny. He loved rock music and science-fiction. I had to read what he was reading in order to keep up with him. He made goofy faces. He would drive his sister crazy.
He would sometimes get into trouble, but never big trouble. He wore Chuck Taylor sneakers, "Blues Brothers" sunglasses and terrible plaids. He never felt the need to impress anyone. He was thin, but built like a rock. The people who were close to him were really close to him. He was a sophomore and a cadet in the "Highty-Tighties" military band. He played the tenor drum. He had an Air Force ROTC scholarship. He wanted to work in military intelligence. He loved his country.
Since I hadn't heard from him over the weekend, I decided to call him on the morning of April 16. I had never called him in the morning, but I felt compelled to reach him just to say hello. His roommate answered. He told me Matthew had already left for class. He also told me there had been a shooting on campus. By the end of the day, I still hadn't heard from Matthew. I knew no news was bad news. By the end of the day, I knew that my son Matthew was no longer in school but in his new home embraced in our Lord's arms.
Of course, my husband Joseph, our daughter Priscilla, and I were devastated. I felt like my heart had a great big hole in it. Our Lord knew I needed help. Family, friends and our pastor, Fr. James Bouffard from Sacred Heart Church in Haworth, N.J., all came to our side. I didn't know it at the time, but our Lord had also prepared two special angels for me.
Wrestling with Questions
Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Payne — he was one of the angels.
My son's superior officer, Chuck had a career in the army and was teaching at Virginia Tech. He helped us arrange two services — a memorial service in our hometown and the funeral service in Blacksburg.
Once Matthew accepted an ROTC scholarship and committed to serving for three years, he was an Air Force cadet and was entitled to a military burial. I'll never forget it. A sea of blue-uniformed cadets stood on a ridge at attention. One by one, they stepped forward offering their shoulder braids to us as a loving farewell. We received a folded flag. There was a 21-gun salute. I was told later that what I didn't see were all the angels and saints standing there beside us.
Chuck was uniquely qualified to help us because he was a devout Catholic. He had known the hardship of losing friends in battle. He, too, had wrestled with questions of why. He listened patiently to all my agonizing questions and offered me whatever insights he could. He became my anchor. He is now my friend.
As a mother, I needed to know what happened in that classroom. Not only did I need to know what happened to my son physically, but I also needed to know what happened to him spiritually. How would I ever know what our Lord had witnessed that day? Part of my answer came the day following his burial.
That's when I met another angel. Chuck had informed us that a Virginia State Trooper wanted to meet us. The hotel in Blacksburg gave us a room to use. We were introduced to Sr. State Trooper Gary Chafin, his police chaplain, and another officer. Gary had been one of the first to enter my son's classroom. He felt compelled to tell us what he saw.
I Only Saw Him at Peace
As a State Trooper, Gary had seen the aftermath of many accidents and many acts of violence, but something here, in my son's classroom, was unlike anything he had ever encountered. Gary was torn with remorse and guilt that he hadn't arrived sooner to prevent the shootings.
He wrote us a letter and wanted to read it to us in person, but he knew he wouldn't be able to get through it. His emotions were too strong so he brought his police chaplain with him to read the following:
Dear Mr. & Mrs. La Porte:
I am compelled to write a few words to you. I was a first responder on the scene of the tragedy that was April 16, 2007. I am a senior trooper with the Virginia State Police with 23 years of military and police experience. I only mention where I have been to validate the impressions your son left on me. I never met Matthew in this life. I only saw him at peace, his spirit having flown away when I entered that room that day. I want to tell you I believe that your son is a hero I believe he was in the warrior class of men, which police officers and military professions are included. My belief that your son is in that warrior class is he was the only one in the room that fell not seated at his desk. I believe your son was on the move. What I saw that day will be with me always.
Someday God will wipe away all that and there will be no more tears. Those are words taught in the Bible, and they are our hope. I believe your son sacrificed himself so that others in that room might live. I am not the only officer in that room to reach the same conclusion. He is with God now, and I believe he was carried by angels that morning, and now is far beyond the sun and stars. I believe you will see him again, and he will be smiling when you arrive. He will tell you it's only been a minute or so, and eternal life and the love that bonds us will be for evermore.
I could not let my feelings of what I saw that terrible day pass by without telling you these thoughts. Your cadet is now in heaven's honor guard. For the family left behind, I am reminded of Psalm 37:37-40. "Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace. But all sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off. The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him."
I say again I believe your son gave his all for the others in that room that awful day. I believe him in paradise. God's peace in your life.
At His service and yours, Senior Trooper, Gary Chafin
When he finished reading, we all stood in a circle and prayed the Our Father. My son died with a smile on his face. What a precious gift Gary had given me.
Dreams of Matthew
This letter was my insight to what had happened. I knew my son was at peace. This letter was of immeasurable comfort to me. Gary needed to know that I didn't blame him for not arriving sooner. He needed to be forgiven in order to heal.
Gary later told us that he had several dreams with Matthew in them. In one dream, Matthew was standing on a windswept hill and said, "I am completed; don't worry for me." He then waved, smiled, and faded to sunlight.
I believe Matthew is just outside our vision. We are inside of his.
I, too, have had dreams with Matthew in them. One in particular left me with such a profound sense of peace that lasted for several days. I am sure that as I embraced Matthew I felt the peace that he feels. I know that it was a touch of heaven.
'No Greater Love'
My life was changed on April 16. My heart still has a hole in it. But God has been filling it up. He is very gentle, very kind. He slowly reveals more to me as I am ready to comprehend more. Initially, I had a difficult time praying the words "deliver us from evil." What happened wasn't God's will, so why didn't He stop it from happening?
Unfortunately, our will doesn't always conform to His will. But He never interferes with man's will. He will deliver us from evil. I now know evil didn't win that day.
Following the massacre, news accounts referred to Matthew as a hero. We've since learned from a wounded student that Matt's actions did save her life. He did die a hero.
I sometimes think, "Matt, why didn't you escape out the window like others did? Why didn't you escape so I would still have you?" But I know if he had escaped he would have considered his life ruined.
It's powerful now to think how he lived up to his own values that he shared while attending Carson Long Military Academy in New Bloomfield, Pa. He had let it be known then that he would embrace the maxim to choose the "harder right instead of the easier wrong."
As Gary says, "No greater love is there than to lay down your life for a friend."
What Did He See?
I've still wondered about the peaceful expression he had on his face when the first responders found his body. What did he see? I finally got my answer.
One night I awakened from a deep sleep when the following thoughts came to my mind. I believe the message was from our Lord. Matthew was always called "La Porte" in school. The military use your last name. Matthew was in the French class. His teacher was French-Canadian. French was her native language. When she heard noise outside the classroom and went to look outside, she realized what was happening and ran back in telling her students to close the door and go to the back of the classroom.
She was yelling in French, "La Porte!" La Porte means "the door" in French. Matthew responded to hearing his name and instinctively ran to the door. I believe he never saw the shooter, but rather saw our Lord, The Divine Mercy, coming through that door.
Defend as My Own Glory
I had prayed the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy for Matthew the day before the shooting, on Divine Mercy Sunday.
Among the promises Christ makes through St. Faustina is that "At the hour of their death, I defend as My own glory every soul that will say this chaplet; or when others say it for a dying person, the indulgence is the same" (Diary, 811).
I know in my heart, Matthew was saved by The Divine Mercy. That was the reason for his smile, a smile that radiated out to Gary and from Gary to me and from me to others.
Our Lord said to St. Faustina, "You should not worry too much about adversities. The world is not as powerful as it seems to be; its strength is strictly limited. Know, that if your soul is filled with the fire of my pure love, then all difficulties dissipate like fog before the sun's rays and dare not touch the soul. All adversaries are afraid to start a quarrel with such a soul, because they sense that it is stronger than the whole world" (Diary, 1643).
Here's another confirmation for me that our Lord keeps us in His embrace: I remember when we were at Virginia Tech for orientation. We were told the school's mascot was a HOKIE. Since you really can't describe a HOKIE, they said you were the HOKIE. That is to say, your spirit and enthusiasm would bond the school together.
I also remember our Lord telling me, "Hearts of Kindness Invalidate Evil." The first letter of each word spells HOKIE.
In Joyful Hope
Matt's legacy is one of love.
I can try to follow in his big footsteps. I can also walk forward with him by my side. I remember being told that he will live on in my eyes, my mind, and my acts of kindness. Love does not die, people do.
So my son was delivered from evil, and every day I'm reminded to look toward the future. Joy is the fulfillment of sorrow. As the priest says before Communion, "Deliver us Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."
I would like to ask you to join with me to help spread the knowledge of our Lord as The Divine Mercy. He is there radiating out His love to us. He will come through doors made of hardened hearts if we turn towards him. Simply stated, as we gaze at the image of The Divine Mercy, which he instructed St. Faustina to have painted, we notice that our Lord has taken the initiative. He does not wait for us to knock. He has come through the door, the door of our heart. He comes blessing us, calming our fears. All we have to do is turn to Him, seek forgiveness, and trust in Him.
The moment we allow Him into our hearts, Jesus wants to come to us as the Merciful Savior, not as the Just Judge. He will take His place at our table and reside with us. He is my companion on my journey.
One of the many graces this journey has brought is a desire in our family's hearts to commission a Divine Mercy image be painted — one we could dedicate to the memory of our Matthew. The artist, Bill Angresano, painted a beautiful image for us, one that's faithful to the instructions given to St. Faustina. It is now displayed at our parish, Sacred Heart Church.
Our intention has not been that the painting be only a memorial to our son and brother but also be a source of grace, hope, and mercy for all those who place their trust in Jesus.
May our Lord be a companion on your journey, and may the image's signature, "Jesus I Trust in You," be imprinted on your heart.
Thank you, and may God bless all of you.
Barbara La Porte can be reached at DMEmbrace@gmail.com.