Where do you find consolation after tragedy? At church, attendance shows
By Julie Filby
Photo by James Baca/DCR
Through the years people have turned to God in the wake of tragedies. They flock to churches to pray, seek comfort in community, and regain hope in a time of uncertainty. Two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, four out of five people polled by Harris Interactive said they were likely to pray or attend religious services because of the attacks.
Like the psalmist, those impacted by tragedy are often expressing gratitude to God for his protection—“Lord, you brought my soul up from Sheol; you let me live, from going down to the pit” (Ps 30:4)—and are seeking healing.
Locally, horrific events such as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and recently the shootings at Century Aurora 16 movie theater, have filled churches with people looking for peace and sometimes, answers.
“There is an increase in Mass attendance after a tragedy that affects a community,” Father Martin Lally, pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Aurora, told the Denver Catholic Register. “I remember after 9/11 we had a noon Mass the actual day and it was packed, then for several weeks the regular Sunday Masses were more well-attended.”
He saw a similar type of response following the July 20 shootings at the Aurora theater that is located just 2 miles from Queen of Peace. At 5 p.m. the day of the early-morning shootings, about 1,000 people attended an impromptu Mass there celebrated by Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila.
“On very short notice the church was very full when the archbishop celebrated Mass,” said Father Lally. “And there is still a slight increase in weekly attendance.”
Why are people drawn to God at times of tragedy?
“I do believe people have good hearts,” said Father Lally. “And I think their first inclination is to pray for those directly affected.”
Sympathy, combined with feelings of vulnerability, can lead people to more fervent prayer.
“We live in such a violent world,” he said. “And I think people are drawn to a connection to the divine because they realize (the violence) is out of our control.”
Some turn to God and ask: Why?
“Because they’re struggling, they want to make some attempt at understanding why this would happen,” said Father Lally.
Msgr. Edward Buelt, pastor of Our Lady of Loreto in Foxfield, said that in times of tragedy people come to church for one of two reasons: either to ask, “Where was God?” or to ask, “Where will God find me?”
“Many leave or do not return, feeling that either they haven’t found God or that God hasn’t found them,” he said. “Since God has given his answer to evil in the cross of Jesus, we will only find God at the foot of the cross.”
That isn’t an easy or comfortable place to be, Msgr. Buelt said, so some leave.
“Leaving or not returning is really just as tragic for that individual as the tragedy itself is for its victims,” Msgr. Buelt said. “The key for the Church is not simply to invite people to come or to stay, but to sit with them in the pain of their own cross so as to know the resurrection of Jesus.”
While God never desires to see anyone suffer, he does permit “awful things” to happen sometimes in people’s lives, explained Anthony Lilles, associate professor of theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
“Our existence is on very precarious ground and sometimes we forget that,” Lilles said. “We can get so caught up in our daily routine that we forget that the gift of life is a very brief gift, granted to us by God.”
Suffering can bring one closer to God.
“Something about suffering and very tragic and sad situations brings us back to that very vulnerable, but beautiful, part of our humanity,” Lilles said. “That part of our humanity that relies on God.”
To find hope, one may need to dig deeper.
“A lot of people, after a tragedy, hook together,” Lilles said. “The tenderness of heart we have for each other is a wonderful and important grace, but it’s not enough to give the human spirit everything it needs to get through this life.”
That’s when dynamically preaching the Gospel is essential.
“It’s the truth that wins the heart,” Lilles said. “The truth the Church needs to give people in times of crisis is Jesus, because he’s the only one who can root us in hope.”
There will always be violence, tragedy and suffering, Lilles said, and there will always be the Gospel.
“Our community is not defined by horrific violence, terrible sinfulness, or weaknesses or inadequacies,” he said. “What defines the community of northern Colorado is the love of God.
“Of all the horrific things that have happened, the love of God has always been there for us. And always will be.”