Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
The Advent season was significantly marred this past year by the tragic loss of lives here in Clackamas and in Newtown, Connecticut. Here it was violence directed at shoppers in the Clackamas Mall. In Connecticut it was the slaughter of twenty children and six adults in an elementary school. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the President of our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed deep sorrow for all the victims. He called upon all of us and our fellow citizens to work for peace in our homes, streets and worlds. Together with other church leaders the Cardinal asked all Americans, especially our legislators, to address national policies that will strengthen regulations of firearms and improve access to health care for those with mental health needs.
When tragedy strikes, inevitably our minds and hearts are paralyzed for a while. Some of our churches held prayer services in memory of the deceased in Newtown. Our own cathedral was one of them. Bishops from California, Utah and Indiana issued a statement together in which they said, “Sacred Scripture reminds us time and again to ‘be not afraid’. Indeed, we must find within ourselves the faith-filled courage to address the challenges our nation faces, both in our homes and in our national policies.” Allow me to expand on some of the thoughts that were shared by my brother bishops in the wake of the violence at Clackamas and Newtown.
First and foremost, these are occasions for us to come together in prayer. Families, friends, neighbors and communities affected by the great loss of children or loved ones find themselves emotionally distraught. One never feels adequate to say the right thing when such suffering occurs. Thanks be to God we can all look to Jesus, to his words and deeds, and ultimately to his cross and resurrection. We are now at the end of the Christmas season when we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Our God is not a distant onlooker to another tragedy. He is one of us and he knows the grief and pain of suffering. In Him we place our hope.
Almost immediately parents, teachers and others were greatly concerned about how to safeguard their children. Discussions began about national policies and steps that can be taken to foster a culture that protects the innocent and those most vulnerable among us. We all need to remember that we simply cannot have it both ways. Today’s culture is much too accepting of violence and convenient death. More than ever we need to promote the culture of life and assure that we are doing everything we can to respect the dignity of every human person and to protect all human life.
One of the reminders from the world synod of bishops in Rome last fall is that the sharing of our beliefs and values is not an option. It is a requirement expected of all the baptized, not just the clergy or official teachers of the faith. Sometimes we need courage to take on the challenges that our nation faces in our homes and in our national policies. Matters are complex and cannot be resolved easily. For this reason it is important that we look hard at the issue of the regulation of firearms, the standards for the entertainment industry, and our service to those with mental health needs. Because it is the beginning of a new term, Congress is reassembling. Our state and local governments begin anew after the fall elections. Women and men whom we have chosen to lead us now must face these issues and we must hold them accountable.
One of the thorny issues is the regulation of firearms. Understandably parents and others are very concerned about protecting their loved ones. This is an honorable intent, but we have to admit that guns are presently too easily accessible. Back in 2006 the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace emphasized the importance of enacting concrete controls on handguns. It was noted back then and needs repeating now that “limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.” Ironically, one week after the Newtown tragedy the leadership of the NRA called for more arms, suggesting that we arm vigilantes in every school across the nation.
On the other hand, the spokesperson for the NRA was right in suggesting that the proliferation of arms is not the only problem. Film producers and video game creators must realize how their profit motives have allowed the proliferation of movies, television programs, video games and other entertainment that glorify violence and prey on the insecurities and immaturity of young people. Exposure to excessive violence inevitably desensitizes just about everyone.
When 20 little children and seven adults are massacred, we all have to pause and reflect upon what value we assign to human life. We have to be able to help parents, guardians and young people evaluate entertainment products intelligently. Unfortunately, the viewing and use of such products has negative emotional, psychological and spiritual effects on people.
Furthermore, it is time now to look into our own hearts and see what kinds of prejudice linger there towards those with mental health needs. We must provide health services and support to those with mental illness, to their families and their caregivers. We should support one another so that no one feels unable to get help for a mentally ill family member or neighbor in need. We certainly are improving in our efforts to reach out to those with physical challenges. We need to have the same attitude towards those with mental health concerns.
Even in tragedy, given the basic goodness of the human family, there are signs of hope. Many individuals went out of their way to help others at the time of the tragedy. In Newtown, the teachers, the principal, the children, the first-responders and other leaders showed tremendous courage. There were those who actually sacrificed their own lives protecting others. It happened both in Clackamas and in Newtown.
Back in the year 2000 we American bishops issued a statement on Crime and Criminal Justice, looking to our responsibility with respect to the rehabilitation and restoration of criminals. In that document we asked our legislators to be attentive to these five concerns: 1) support measures that control the sale and use of firearms; 2) support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner); 3) call for sensible regulations of hand guns; 4) support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons; 5) make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.
As people of good will, we have had a wakeup call as a result of the terrible tragedies of December, 2012. What a sin it would be to mourn the losses and do nothing about protecting others from similar violence in the future. As we begin this new year, the Catholic community invites all people of good will to help us bring about a culture of life and peace.