When 20 young children and six adults are shot and killed in an elementary school, it is only natural to cry out in pain and bewilderment. 

Why God? Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? Has God abandoned us?

Searching for answers

The truth, the Catholic faith tells us, is that God never allows, or condones, any evil for any purpose at all, that God protects us from evil, crying and suffering alongside us in tragedy, said Deacon Norman Roos of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown, Conn. 

“Evil is not a physical thing. It only exists in an absence. It only exists in the absence of God. It is overcome and conquered by the presence of God,” said Deacon Roos, who told Our Sunday Visitor that his parish community has been a bulwark of faith and support for the families of the victims who died Dec. 14 in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

Deacon Roos said almost 2,000 people attended his church’s vigil Mass on the evening of Dec. 14. Most had to stand outside the church, which only holds about 800 people. The six Masses on the following Sunday were also filled to capacity. 

“In some sense, the tragedy has united a town that was already close,” Deacon Roos said. 

The large crowds flocking to St. Rose of Lima Church, a parish of 3,500 families — shows that people still have an innate yearning for God when tragedy strikes. However, the shooting at Sandy Hook, besides sparking a national debate on gun control, also raises tough questions about the reality of evil and suffering in the world. 

A memorial made up of candles outside the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 15. Newscom

Joseph White, a clinical psychologist and former parish director of religious activities who has written several books on catechesis, told OSV that Popes Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI have taught in recent years that it remains unknown why innocent people suffer, and why bad things happen to them. 

“Why (sin) is permitted to cause suffering to innocent people is a question we can’t fully comprehend or fully answer,” White said. “One thing our faith teaches us is that God is in solidarity with us when we suffer.” 

“Reflecting on Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, Blessed John Paul II taught that God is always on the side of those who suffer, and that he can transform evil into something good and life-affirming, if we allow him to,” White said. “With the crucifixion, God was able to take that action, and make of that the event that saves us.”

Senseless violence

Scripture and Catholic teaching tell us that good ultimately triumphs over evil, but that does not erase the natural desire to want to understand why tragedies strike. 

“It seems so senseless. It’s been very difficult for everyone to see this kind of horrific event,” White said. “One of the things we have to come to terms with, is that some questions are not going to be answered in this lifetime.” 

Oftentimes, in an effort to comfort the grieving, people will say, “Things happen for a reason.” But that is not always so, said Greg Popcak, executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family and personal problems. 

“The truth is, some things don’t happen for a reason, and it’s foolish to try to look for a reason that doesn’t exist,” said Popcak, who also told OSV that the “genius of the Christian response” to suffering and the question of evil is the knowledge that “God allows us to bring joy out of despair, to bring order out of chaos, to bring grace out of evil.” 

“There is no good answer as to why bad things happen,” Popcak said. “What does make sense is asking, ‘God, what do you want me to make of this?’ Anybody touched by this tragedy, any tragedy, instead of giving in to the question of why, the response needs to be, ‘What are you asking me to do with this? What’s my part in making sure this never happens again to anybody?’” 

It has become conventional wisdom that God never gives anyone something they cannot handle. The reality, Popcak said, is that things do happen that people cannot handle on their own without God’s grace.

Evil up close

In the Gospels, Jesus also does not give an answer for the existence of suffering and evil in the world except to say that it is not a punishment for sin. However, his life is the answer to that question, said Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. 

“In Jesus we see the compassion of a God who not only wants to embrace and comfort people but also joins us in our suffering and death,” Father Reese said. “Rather than giving us an intellectual answer, God gives us a living answer who shares our suffering on the cross.” 

Father Reese also noted the centuries-old devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. 

“This Mary, who stood at the foot of the cross, is the woman to whom mothers have turned for comfort when their children have suffered or died,” Father Reese said. 

Father Ron Brassard, a priest of the Diocese of Providence, R.I., preached on the Sandy Hook tragedy on the Sunday immediately following the shooting. Evil, Father Brassard said, is no longer a distant, abstract philosophical concept. 

“Evil has become real, tangible and frightening beyond words,” said Father Brassard, who told his congregation that it was because of evil in this world that God the Father sent Jesus to save humanity. He also urged Catholics to pray for the victims, to love their neighbors and work toward eliminating the violence that pervades the culture. 

A thoughtful, prayerful response is indeed needed to a tragedy such as the Sandy Hook shooting, said Popcak. 

“If a Christian is going to make a serious response to this, it serves us to sit down, pray about it until we figure out what we are going to do,” Popcak said. “Anything less than that does not respect the seriousness of what we are up against, and the seriousness of the Christian mission.”

Choosing love and life

White added that Scripture, notably the Psalms and the Book of Lamentations, tell us that it is OK to cry out “Why?” to God, even to bring our anger and emotions to him in prayer. 

“We really allow God to work through our lives when we bring to him those times when we are angry or upset,” White said. “We can ask him those tough questions, to ask him what he would have us do and understand about this.” 

For people directly affected by tragedy, White said it is “OK not to be OK” for awhile. 

“What would be crazy would be not to have a reaction to something so profound,” White said, adding that such a wound needs time to heal. White said it is also important for victims’ relatives to take care of themselves, to get proper rest, seek appropriate counseling and refrain from making big life decisions in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events. 

Deacon Roos said tragedy can leave people feeling powerless to control the seeming randomness of life. But people, he said, can choose love and life when they include God in their lives, or hatred and death when they keep him out. 

“We ask why God cannot do more for us by protecting us from such evil, but he has already done what he can,” Deacon Roos said. “And it is more than enough.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.