So a rabbi and a priest and 20 parents walk into hell

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So, how many GetReligion readers will be able to forget watching the Robbie Parker press conference, accompanied by the image of his blue-eyed, angelic lost daughter Emilie?

Not me, that’s for sure.

I was struck by his early reference to the gifts given to her by “her Heavenly Father” and, while that is very standard Christian language, the minute the network aired a picture of the young family, with it’s three young daughters, I immediately wondered if they were Mormons. I, for one, have not seen a clear reference on that point, but the fund in memory of Emilie Parker is based in Ogden, Utah. Also, did anyone else note the poignant reference to his final chat with his daughter?

Here is The Washington Post on that subject:

One parent who lost a child, Robbie Parker, spoke to reporters Saturday evening. He expressed sympathy for Lanza’s family, saying, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you.”

Parker said that Emilie, the daughter he lost, was blond and blue-eyed and could light up a room. “All those who had the pleasure to meet her would agree that the world was better because she was in it,” Parker said. He recalled the last time he saw Emilie, on Friday morning as he headed to work. He had been teaching her Portuguese, and so their last conversation was in that language.

“She said that she loved me, and she gave me a kiss and I was out the door,” said Parker, whose family moved to Newtown eight months ago. “I’m so blessed to be her dad.”

One wonders why this young medical worker had learned Portuguese. There could be a missionary link in there, somewhere.

But never mind, as in many reports on his remarkably graceful press conference, the faith content and language vanished in the Post copy. One can only ask why.

The memorial rites and funerals will, of course, contain plenty of religious images and passages, with a heavy emphasis on issues of theodicy. This is well and good. I’m writing on an issue related to that myself, this week, for Scripps Howard.

While many have mentioned the close-knit clergy of this community, I keep waiting for evidence that this is more than a mainline Protestant, Jewish and Catholic town. Has anyone seen evidence of those serving evangelical, Mormon or Pentecostal believers?

The New York Times and Washington Post each offered clergy stories, which, together, gave readers a kind of “so a rabbi and a priest walk into hell” scenario. The top of the Times piece appears to be an eyewitness report from a reporter standing silently on the edge of a quiet room in the funeral home:

It was early Sunday, the first time that Veronique Pozner had seen the boy’s body since he was shot to death in his first-grade classroom two days before. A sheet covered his body up to his neck, and a social worker had urged Ms. Pozner not to remove it. She obliged, but began to wail, alternately telling her son to leave this “dark, horrible world,” and beseeching him to come back.

Rabbi Praver began to speak softly. He told her that though Noah had physically left this world, he was not lost to them because his soul lived on. He asked her if she remembered her 6-year-old self and when she said she did, he told her that “when we become adults, our 5- and 6-year-olds didn’t die with us; they’re contained within a larger vessel.”

He was offering, he said, a kind of “spiritual morphine.”

And then, in the Post, there is the spiritual minefield in which Msgr. Robert Weiss has living for several days now:

The 66-year-old priest is known as Father Bob to the 3,500 families who belong to St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. On Sunday, what Father Bob craved — after long hours of counseling and grieving and not enough sleep — was a good Scotch and a place to let go. Half of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary were members of Weiss’s congregation, and he had baptized many of them.

After the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, in a rectory full of law enforcement officers and priests, Weiss wept.

Nothing at seminary had trained him for this week. Nothing about his 13 years at St. Rose. Nothing about his understanding of the world.

“I thought about Paul,” said Weiss, his black clergy shirt unbuttoned and his white collar in his shirt pocket like a pen. “Paul said, ‘In my weakness I find my greatest strength.’?”

Can we assume, in this day and age, that readers will know that “Paul” is actually St. Paul and that the priest is offering a broad paraphrase of the famous imagery in 2 Corinthians 12:9?

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

I would assume that many readers needed the missing details, but I could be wrong.

This story includes quite a few eyewitness details that I have not seen in print before, since the monsignor arrived on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School very, very quickly with two other priests. He was there as the reunions between parents and surviving children slowed and slowed and then stopped. Try to imagine watching this scene:

Reunion after reunion whittled the lines down, leaving only parents, empty-handed and desperate. They were taken to the nearby firehouse where the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company operated.

Weiss walked over, too. He knew half the parents from St. Rose. He had officiated at their weddings and the baptisms of their children, some of whom were now unaccounted for. Inside the firehouse, parents texted relatives, called babysitters to stay late and called around to likely places where their missing children might have gone.

That room, too, was whittled down.

Soon, the parents needed a priest, right then and there:

In the room of folding chairs, time passed. Weiss felt the tension rising in equal measure to the sense of dread. Parents started coming to him with regrets.

A mother said she shouldn’t have taken her daughter’s DVD player away. “She wasn’t a bad child,” the mother told Weiss. Another mother who came to Weiss said it was her fault she sent her daughter to school that morning. She blamed herself, telling the priest she wasn’t fit to raise her other children.

About 3 p.m., Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy came into the room. The gruesome announcement was his to make: 27 people inside the school had been killed, and 20 were children. All would be taken to the medical examiner’s office.

With the news came the most raw display of human grief that Weiss had ever seen or imagined — wailing, weeping, screaming, people sinking to
the floor. …

In all those hours of counseling and comforting, no one asked the priest, “Why?” The question came later, starting on Sunday, and Weiss did not have an answer.

And that’s the end of the story. I, for one, would like to know more about what the priest said at that point.

Perhaps he truly was silent or said that he had no answer, no answer at all. I have my doubts about that. Then again, I grew up in the home of a pastor who finished his career as the chaplain in the Texas Children’s Hospital, working with the parents of young cancer patients. I know that chaplains rarely offer simple answers. But I have heard few settle for silence.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    Incredible pieces. Both captured the immediate grief without being intrusive. Seeing things through the eyes of religious folks who knew these people personally was a great idea. The immediate grief is sure to be followed by forensics and the like, but great to start with the seering personal/family reaction and the religious attempt to deal with the big picture.

  • Darren Blair

    A quick Google search has turned up a few bits – including a Deseret News article (http://www.deseretnews.com/user/comments/765617932/Conn-dad-recalls-loving-creative-6-year-old.html#cId_28272163) – that pretty much seem to take his Mormonism for granted.

    Additionally, the Meetinghouse Locator at Mormon.org (http://mormon.org/meetinghouse) indicates that there are three Mormon congregations that meet out of Newtown: two regular congregations (9 AM start time and 2 PM start time) and a Spanish-language congregation that starts at 12:10 PM. If the family was Mormon, they’d be assigned to one of the two regular congregations depending upon where they live, as the church maintains a policy of setting geographic boundaries for each congregation; not only does this keep congregations from fighting with each other for members, it also forces people to work with their neighbors rather than exclude anyone. The listed address of the building is “16 Saw Mill Road NEWTOWN, CONNECTICUT 06470-1440 UNITED STATES” . I’m also seeing phone numbers on the site; these phone numbers should be to the phones in the respective ministers’ offices, and so there may or may not be a response; the best times to call would either be some time during the Sunday worship services (a total of three hours, with leadership meetings going on before and after) or Wednesday night activities (shoot for 6 PM – 9 PM local for best results).

    Furthermore, the LDS faith uses a lay clergy. Everyone at the local and stake (re: diocese) level is a volunteer, and so are everyday people just like the rest of us when not fulfilling their church functions; I myself am actually the finance clerk in my congregation (I deliver newspapers; yeah, even with an MBA I can’t get a better job right now), and my minister is a dentist who is seen more often in his scrubs than his suit. Other local clergy members, past and present, have included a handful of teachers, a bank president, and several active-duty and retired members of the military (the local stake includes Ft. Hood).

    In that sense, if the family is Mormon, then the minister and several others from the local leadership have likely been in and out several times now without being recognized, let alone identified as Mormon. If that’s the case, then I’d like to know what the media was looking for, if they were even looking for us Mormons at all.

  • Julia

    Incredible pieces. Both captured the immediate grief without being intrusive. Seeing things through the eyes of religious folks who knew these people personally was a great idea. The immediate grief is sure to be followed by forensics and the like, but great to start with the searing personal/family reaction and the religious attempt to deal with the big picture. I wouldn’t have expected either paper to process the story through the experience of religious pastors.

  • Roberto

    The New York Daily News had a piece on the first-grade teacher, Victoria Soto, who put her body between Lanza and her students. It mentions in passing that she “was a regular worshiper at the Lordship Community Church in Stratford.” I would have like to know more.

  • sari

    Excellent articles, both.

    A couple of nitpicky things, tmatt. First, Heavenly Father is Christian, not Judeo-Christian. Jews refer to G-d as G-d or HaShem (the Name); in prayer, He may be referred to as the Merciful One, L-rd, or any one of a number of superlatives. The standard greeting to an onen (mourner) translates as “May the Place (haMakom) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

    Second, the NYT piece made the same mistake twice in two paragraphs. It is Congregation Adath Israel (Conservative), correctly noted in other articles, not Temple A.I. He also stated that Newtown is “home to one temple, one Catholic church and half a dozen other congregations.” A Jewish house of worship is a synagogue (shul), not a Temple (which should be capitalized). The Reform movement chose to designate their shuls as such. With a few exceptions, Conservative shuls preface the name with Congregation (interesting, since Adath translates as assembly or congregation); Orthodox shuls avoid Temple altogether.

    To the point of your post: those families which choose to share their faiths will do so in the days to come, but now is not the time to hound them for information that they choose not to volunteer. As beautifully written as the linked articles are, I can’t help but wonder how Mrs. Pozner will feel when she reads the article a few weeks, months or years from now. These are private people, not public figures, and they deserve to have their privacy respected, to set the boundaries with which they are most comfortable. The public has no right to any more than the victims’ families want to share. Only law enforcement, with its obligation to research the crime and report its conclusions, and that within very tight parameters, must share information as it becomes available.

  • tmatt

    SARI:

    Totally right. My mistake. Corrected.

  • http://www.actualidadereligiosa.blogspot.com Filipe Avillez

    Mr Parker was a missionary in Brazil, according to this brazilian mormon website.
    http://murilovisck.blogspot.pt/2012/12/familia-mormon-sofre-apos-massacre-nos.html
    Stunning testimony…

  • Darren Blair

    According to some Baha’i pals of mine on Beliefnet.com, one of the couples in Newton read a passage from a Baha’i leader during the memorial service:

    http://community.beliefnet.com/go/thread/view/43861/13745121/Latest_Bahai_world_news…&post_num=279#526971963

    So apparently, Newton may or may not have a small population of Baha’i as well.

    • Darren Blair

      Looks like the link glitched; you’ll be wanting post #279 in the thread.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Reading of Father Weiss breaking down in tears as one would expect even the most hardened heart to do, it reminded me of one reporrter’s criticism of his fellow reporters I heard on TV this week-end. He said that what was getting to him was the lack of deep serious emotion most who were covering this story were showing. There should have been at least a few who reacted as did the announcer in the early years of radio who totally broke apart while covering the incineration of the von Hindenberg blimp and so many human victims riding in it. However, he continued to do his job, but in anguished tears and while expressing a heartfelt horror you could almost hear vibrating on the airwaves as he reported the story.


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