Even if I Die, I Should be the First One

Putharayil Fr Benny

Father Benny Putharayli

Even if I die, I should be the first one.

That was how Father Benny Putharayli evaluated the situation when the gunman who had invaded his church during mass gestured for him to step forward.

Father Putharayli’s parishioners were already on the floor, taking cover. A gunman had walked into the Church of St Michael in Ray, ND during mass and yelled, “Stop Father!”

“It was a shocking moment because I was preaching,” the priest recounted. The parishioners hit the floor and that left Father Putharayli the only one standing.

When the gunman gestured for the priest to come forward, Father Putharayli thought, “Even if I die, I should be the first one.”

I would guess that Father’s thoughts were almost instantaneous. This doesn’t sound like the kind of situation where someone has time to weigh their ideas and contemplate consequences. Moments like this strip away the intellectual boundaries we place between who we are and who we would like to be.

It sounds as if that split second thought was Father Putharayli, offering his life for that of his parishioners.

The gunman was a killer. He had murdered two people, including his 82-year-old mother, before coming to the church. Fortunately, he only wanted money from the parishioners. But Father Putharayli didn’t know this when he was looking down the barrel of that shotgun, and given that he was dealing with someone so depraved that he had killed his own mother, things could easily have turned bloody in that church that evening.

The world gets crazier and violent acts multiply. But, even in the midst of this violence, individual acts of heroism and self-sacrifice witness to the best that’s in us. That is one of the messages we need to take away from the many terrible events in our society. Good happens, and it happens in the worst of times.

I’m tired of asking the question “Why?” about the senseless violence in our society? The operative word about these terrible crimes is that they are senseless by ordinary thinking. There will never be a comprehensible answer to the question Why? or at least not one we want to hear.

The truth is, our society has become a psycho-breeder. We don’t want to face that and the implications it has for some of our cherished misbehaviors. But without a willingness to forego easy answers and quickie fixes that will not work, the eternal whys of the victims have no answers.

As I said a few months ago, we are going to have to learn to live with this. This is our new normal.

I understand the shattered victims who ask Why? That is the first and deepest response of the grievously wounded. Coming from those whose lives have been shattered, Why? isn’t a question so much as it is a statement. I am worth something it says. My loved one who is dead or injured is a beautiful gift from God and their worth is beyond counting. Don’t you see that?

That is what Why? means when it comes from a shattered victim.

But as a rhetorical question from a stunned public, it has ceased to resonate, at least for me. I am tired of asking Why?

I refuse to go where these rhetorical Whys? lead to, which is a fixation on the monsters who do these things. I don’t want to talk about them. I would rather we never spoke their names and, when the times comes, that we salt their graves so nothing can ever grow there again.

So, if you want to gabble about the various shootings and tragedies of this week or the weeks before, go elsewhere. The silence on this blog is my salt on the monster’s graves. They are anathema to me. When I speak, it will be about the beautiful acts of heroism and love that ordinary people rise to as a result of these pitiless assaults.

We need to focus on the brave and selfless people who look down the barrel of a shotgun and think Even if I die, I should be the first one. 

Because, even in the worst of times, good happens.

From Chicago Sun-Times.com:

The Rev. Benny D. Putharayil was conducting Saturday night mass at the Church of St. Michael in Ray, N.D. when a man armed with a shotgun barged in.

“It was a shocking moment because I was preaching,” Putharayil recalled Monday night, only after learning the man had been wanted for murder. “He stepped in with a gun and shouted, ‘Stop, Father.’”

Heads in the pews turned to catch sight of 54-year-old Billy Varner, who has since been charged with the murder of two women in north suburban Antioch, according to the priest and authorities.

Nearly three-dozen parishioners hit the floor, taking cover in the pews, leaving Putharayil the only one standing, the Catholic priest said in a phone interview.

Then the man gestured with his gun for Putharayil to come forward.

“My thought was, ‘Even if I die, I should be the first one,’” Putharayil said. “By God’s grace I was a spared.”