In the face of evil and tragedy, let us pray

Sometimes, all we can do is pray.

Of course, everything we do should be centered in prayer, which should permeate our lives.
But often, particularly at times of great crisis or tragedy, we feel an urgency to do more, to make our prayers a catalyst for action — to right a terrible wrong, to give comfort and healing to victims, to fix the circumstances that have allowed it to happen.

Such is the case with the horrific mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater early last Friday morning.

Some will focus on the punishment due the perpetrator, and certainly, whatever compassion true Christians feel for this troubled man and his family, he obviously must be confined for the protection of society. Death penalty enthusiasts are no doubt gratified that Colorado still employs capital punishment. Yet while that might satisfy the concept of justice — or vengeance —for some, it certainly did not, in this case, deter the shooter from his clearly pre-planned act of mass murder.

Others, looking to put a stop to these recurrent mass shootings, will renew calls for more stringent gun control laws. And certainly, even within the protections of the Second Amendment, there is room for restrictions against the individual stockpiling of weapons on such a massive scale as that engaged in by James Holmes. That of course will not change the underlying mental or emotional afflictions of a potentially violent individual, but it may at least help to limit the carnage if and when that individual acts on his or her violent impulses.

Still others will point to the glorification of violence in our culture, indeed in movies like the one that served as the venue — and perhaps the inspiration — for this senseless attack. Obviously, such judgments can be highly subjective, with many finding positive messages of good versus evil in movies like the Batman series (see column by Father Barron, page 16); and we ought not resort to censoring speech — be it entertainment, political, or religious — simply because of its unpredictable impact on a disturbed mind. But clearly, we all need to be vigilant in monitoring what our children are exposed to — in movies, TV, video games, online communications, etc. — and how they seem to be affected by certain themes, depictions and messages.

Some will question the effectiveness and accountability of our mental health treatment programs — as is being done in our area right now, following the stabbing of a woman in New York City last week by a man who had been in and out of such programs, and was reportedly unmonitored and off his medication when he committed that assault.

Yet early reports do not indicate that James Holmes was ever “in the system” in terms of being identified with, or treated for, mental illness. While some simply saw him as a shy, bookish loner, others apparently found him odd, and shied away from him. But that hardly constituted reason for him to have been labeled mentally ill, let alone potentially violent. There seems little the mental health system could have done in advance to prevent this particular tragedy.

All these and other issues related to this and similar acts of violence must and will be analyzed, discussed and debated, and some or all of them acted on, in efforts to prevent such senseless violence. As Catholic citizens we should be involved in these deliberations, reaching our own conclusions — informed by Catholic moral and social teachings — and making our voices heard in the public square.

At the same time, we must acknowledge the limitations of what we, or any human beings or human institutions, can do, to change human behavior or prevent human suffering. We must realize that sometimes, the most important — and most effective — thing we can do is pray, and we should do so now: praying for the souls of those who were killed, for the recovery of those wounded, for healing and comfort for the families, friends and loved ones of all the victims; and yes, for God’s mercy and healing for the deeply disturbed young man who did this, and for his stricken family.

Indeed, let us pray for all those in our world who are living with mental illness, especially those prone to violence, that God may alleviate their own suffering, and thereby perhaps protect them from potentially inflicting terrible suffering on others.