Ministries Respond to Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting  

Stephen Mangione   In the Headlines

Siena’s chaplain Lawrence Anderson leads students and community members in prayer at the campus grotto.

From prayer services to messages from the pulpit, ministries around the Province demonstrated solidarity and support for the Jewish community – and in the process, helped people cope emotionally and honored the memories of those who lost their lives at the hands of a gunman who opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., on Oct. 27. It was one of the deadliest attacks against people of Jewish faith in our country’s history.

Both Province-sponsored colleges held events just days after the horrific attack that took 11 lives and injured other worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue.

Siena College, located in Loudonville, N.Y., held a prayer service that was reported by several local media outlets, including WNYT News Channel 13. The interfaith “prayer for peace” service was held on Oct. 30, appropriately at the Siena College grotto, a stone structure modeled after the shrine in Lourdes, France, that offers a place of solace, prayer and remembrance to the campus community and visitors.

During the service, students, faculty, staff and other participants from the capital region prayed for the victims, their families and others affected by the shooting. This was followed by the symbolic act of lighting candles, with each representing a Franciscan message of hope and prayer.

In an interview with WNYT-13, Siena College chaplain Lawrence Anderson, OFM, said, “You try to just make sense of something [that] doesn’t make sense – the reality of violence and hatred and prejudice – but recognizing that there [are] more powerful forces, [such as] love, compassion and support for one another in times of grief, [that make it possible] for people to share their pain [and] despair, [and] also their hope,” Larry said.

In an interview with Spectrum News, Larry said, “I think it’s just important for us to be present with one another, to listen to one another, and to be there for one another.”

St. Bonaventure University in Western New York held an interfaith prayer for healing and call to action that was organized by the university’s ministries, Damietta Center for Multicultural Student Affairs, and Center for Nonviolence. Participants gathered around the peace pole and in the shadow of the campus interfaith prayer tower outside the McGinley-Carney Center for Franciscan Ministry.

After opening prayers by Francis Di Spigno, OFM, executive director of the McGinley-Carney Center, and Kyle Haden, OFM, 11 SBU students were asked to present a narrative on each of the 11 individuals who were murdered simply because they were Jewish. A Star of David, each containing a name of a victim, was staked in the ground to honor their memory.

In an interview with the Olean Times-Herald, Francis said, “I think as a Catholic institution and as a Franciscan institution, to have 11 Stars of David is important. They are our brothers and sisters. It’s an assault on all of us.”

He continued: “Our students are light years ahead of our culture because they’re accepting of each other. Not totally — there are issues, people are people — but I find that this generation is much more accepting of people who are different.”

The service included a rendition of the song “Lean on Me” by Parker Suddeth, coordinator of the Damietta Center who this past June received the distinguished member of the year award from the Buffalo Urban League Young Professionals.

Kyle presented a reflection and Kaddish, a Jewish prayer whose central theme is the magnification and sanctification of God’s name. While this prayer is recited at specific points of Jewish services, it is also said on other occasions at synagogues, particularly by mourners to show that despite their loss they still praise God.

Longtime St. Bonaventure University philosophy professor Barry Gan, who serves as director of the Center for Nonviolence, also gave a poignant reflection. Gan said scapegoating that instigates needless and dangerous anger must be rejected – and that our response, instead, should be one of creating new hope that starts with welcoming into our communities people of all faiths, creeds, colors and general persuasions.

Alice Miller Nation, who began her tenure in July of this year as director of the university’s Franciscan Center for Social Concern, implored students and the entire St. Bonaventure community to respond to a call to action in the wake of this tragedy.

She challenged students to find ways to use their own faith to be a light in the world, encouraging them to do the simple act of writing a supportive note – which the university would send to the Tree of Life Synagogue’s congregation – to something more complex as going through the “Check Your Blind Spots” mobile tour, a multimedia experience designed to educate and facilitate honest conversation about diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias in university communities and workplaces.

Memorial Sanctuary
At St. Bonaventure Church in the nearby Allegany community, James Vacco, OFM, pastor, established a memorial in the sanctuary consisting of a 12-inch Torah scroll and vigil candle.

“At each liturgy, I drew the congregation’s attention to the memorial and gave a short explanation of the Kaddish,” James said. “I used the version of Kaddish from a Reform Jewish prayer book for the penitential rite. That version had ‘amen’ inserted, so I recited the main part of the text and the congregation responded with the ‘amen,’” explained James, whose homily focused on the blindness that our culture seemingly suffers when it comes to violence.

“Like Bartimaeus, we need to cry out from a conviction of wanting to see so we can change,” he said. “But the change begins once we start crying out for a need to see – and comprehend – differently, [that is], to see and act with focus, and thus embrace more intently the love of neighbor.”

In terms of how Franciscan-minded people can help others cope in the aftermath of such senseless tragedy, James said, “Being mindful of how prejudice and bigotry exists and sincere in assessing one’s thoughts about stereotypes, behavior in regards to ethnic jokes and in extending correction when witnessing others who exhibit patterns of such insensitivities, shows forth the desire to make right a fractured world.”

He added, “Did not St. Francis advocate the fraternal connection we have to every part of creation? If that is the case, then not to communicate the desire for acceptance and peace – and call oneself Franciscan – would be hypocrisy.”

Series of Prayer Sessions
Ironically, before the Oct. 27 tragedy, St. Patrick-St. Anthony in Hartford, Conn., had scheduled a series of prayer sessions. Citing a “time of great divisiveness in our nation,” the parish decided to initiate a 15- to 20-minute prayer session every Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Chapel of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, where parishioners and visitors gather for prayer, song and meditation. The weekly service – which includes various readings such as excerpts from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exultate, on the call to holiness in today’s world – took on an even greater significance after the shooting at the synagogue.

Close to Home
For Daniel Grigassy, OFM, the Pittsburgh tragedy hit close to him. He grew up just three blocks away from the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Pittsburgh neighborhood known as Squirrel Hill.

“Three blocks in the other direction was the home of Fred Rogers (of the iconic TV show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood). The news media rightly characterized the neighborhood on the east side of Pittsburgh as diverse and peaceful,” said Dan, pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish in Paterson, N.J.

“I had several Jewish ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ — long-time friends of our family, who brought joy to our home. It was common to have African-American friends visit our house and share our table,” Dan recalled. “Only later, during the height of the civil rights era in the mid- and late-1960s, did I realize that my experience in Squirrel Hill was highly uncommon in most Euro-American homes. I thank God for the way I was raised, and for the good people of Squirrel Hill.”

Since the synagogue shootings, Dan has preached several times to his congregation at Sunday Mass about home-grown terrorism and the dark attitudes within our nation’s borders – and how the attitudes of Christ should be used to counter this darkness. He has also reached out to rabbis in neighboring North Jersey communities to extend sympathies on behalf of St. Bonaventure parishioners and the Franciscan friars, assuring them of the prayers of their Christian brothers and sisters.

“On a recent Sunday, we had the readings from Deuteronomy and Mark’s Gospel that included the famous Jewish prayer, the Shema: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord is God and Lord alone,’” Dan said. “I threaded this prayer with my own reflections and with Jewish prayers from a site that Larry Ford at Holy Name Parish in New York City was kind enough to connect me with.”

Pastor’s Message
At St. Andrew Parish in Clemson, S.C., Daniel McLellan, OFM, pastor, in his message in the Nov. 4 Sunday bulletin, wrote, “Few nations have an ethnic complexion like ours. [But] the virus of racial and ethnic hatred is still potent and deadly. We have succeeded in creating a culture of public discourse in which we seek amusement from spokespersons for causes and policies who masquerade the virus as humor and slogan. And we’ve lost the powerful remedy that keeps this toxic virus from becoming deadly – decency.”

Daniel said for all of the differences in peoples and cultures that he encountered when traveling abroad, it was always a unique experience going through customs upon returning to the United States.

“I remember coming back from Asia into Los Angeles. The woman who directed us to passport control was black and spoke with a Caribbean lilt. The fellow who made sure we queued up was a Sikh,” said Daniel, who continued, “The gent who stamped my passport had the map of Ireland all over his face, and the officer who took my customs declaration was Latino. All [of them were] agents of some federal government entity [and were] representatives of the United States.”

As at most ministries throughout the Province, there was a special intercession at all Masses, asking the congregation at St. Andrew to pray for the “murdered members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community.”

On the campus of St. Bonaventure, students, faculty and administration members gathered outside the ministry center for a prayer service in honor of those affected by the Oct. 27 shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue.

Collaborative Services
In Greenville, S.C., the St. Anthony of Padua Parish remembered the victims with a combination of parish messages and collaborative community prayer services, according to Patrick Tuttle, OFM, pastor.

In addition to the friars speaking about the bond between Catholics and Jews and the fact that Jesus was Jewish, they also addressed an important civic and social justice issue in their homilies at the Sunday Masses on Nov. 4 – noting the need for gun control similar to the tracking system of a vehicle acquisition and driver’s license.

Shortly after the tragic occurrence, a parish-wide email message was sent to parishioners to remind them of the shared heritage between the Roman Catholic and Jewish communities through a quote from Vatican II (Nostra Aetate, Oct. 28, 1965): “The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Patrick explained that the reprint of Nostra Aerate was an effort to illustrate to the wider public the longstanding Catholic interfaith effort, and to offer cogent words that Catholics can use to take a stand.

The parish also partnered for two prayer services with campus ministries at nearby Furman University, as well as with the local chapter of United Way at a street vigil for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

The prayer services with Furman echoed themes in Catholic social teaching, as well as those of other major world religions – themes that included solidarity, the power of prayer, and the need for gun control laws that mirror vehicle acquisition, training, licensing and rules enforcement. The outdoor vigil with United Way was organized so that like-minded people could join together in peaceful protest, according to Patrick.

Interfaith in Raleigh
In Raleigh, N.C., Steven Patti, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, was so moved by a prayer service he attended at nearby Beth Meyer Synagogue that he shared his experience in a letter to parishioners published in the Sunday bulletin.

“It was a beautiful evening with a crowd of more than 1,000 people – Jews, Muslims and Christians – that gathered [in unity] for a prayer vigil to remember the Pittsburgh shooting victims,” Steve said.

“We prayed, we listened, we sang. The lights were dimmed and candles were lit. For a time on [that] Sunday evening, there was no talk about what divides us, no threatening words, no talk of doctrinal points or right or wrong beliefs,” said Steve, who by chance was seated next to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper during the Oct. 28 service.

He noted that there was only a sense of loss, lament and, most important, hope in a God who calls to us in our depths to be people of peace and reconciliation. Steve said the entire interfaith assembly recited the following prayer:

“We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to root out prejudice and hatred; for You have already given us eyes with which to see the good in all people, if we would only care to look for it.”

Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y. Jocelyn Thomas contributed research to this article.

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