In Vegas, the pastoral toll of a mass shooting

The Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people besides the gunman and wounded nearly 500 did more than physical harm to the community there.

It tore at the souls and at the spirit of the people who were at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, an open-air country music show, and at the first responders who came to their aid, the medical personnel who attended to them, and the friends and family who waited and worried until they found out if their loved ones were safe.

Ministering to all of these people means being present and helping the suffering see the good things — big and small — that have come from people’s hearts in the wake of the tragedy.

Aftermath

On Oct. 2, the Guardian Angel Cathedral — which sits at the opposite end of the famous Las Vegas Strip from the site of the shooting — opened its doors for an interfaith prayer service led by Bishop Joseph A. Pepe, and in the days that followed many other Catholic churches held their own services. Many also kept their doors open for people who wanted to come in and pray.

The cathedral service was attended by “people of every faith and people of no faith,” said Msgr. Greg Gordon, pastor of St. Anne Parish, which is about 2 1/2 miles northeast of the cathedral and the Catholic Center. “It was probably the most fervent prayer I’ve ever felt in that cathedral.”

Another church close to the Strip, the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, had Mass before the music festival started that Sunday. It remained closed in the days after the shooting as it was in the area cordoned off by authorities.

Father Robert Stoeckig, the vicar general of the Diocese of Las Vegas and the rector of the cathedral, said he focuses on the goodness in the wake of the shooting. There were heroic acts performed by first responders and concertgoers alike, and the impulse to help has continued. A group of young people, no older than college students, were in the plaza outside the Cathedral when the Oct. 2 prayer service ended, carrying stacks of pizza boxes, he said.

“They knew we were having this service at what would normally be mealtime, and many people came after work without having time to eat first,” Father Stoeckig said.

During a crisis like this, Father Stoeckig said that the need is to “meet people where they are” but that this can be difficult when people haven’t got their bearings. “We have to make time for a lot of patient listening,” he said. “We live in a society that has a great ability to deny, especially difficult feelings — sadness, anger. There are questions of, where is God in this? There are people who just want to get back to normal, without understanding that what is normal is going to be different.”

Given the cathedral’s location, the pews are filled every Sunday, not only with regular members, but with tourists from around the world, as well as casino and hotel staff, some of whom are now anxious about going to work.

Accompanying trauma

Everyone in the community has a long road ahead, Father Stoeckig said, and the grieving process is complicated. In an email to priests, he reminded them to offer extra support in the coming months, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Meanwhile, pastors are trying to be present in all the places they are needed. Most parishes in Las Vegas have a hospital within their boundaries, Msgr. Gordon said, and St. Anne is no exception. Sunrise Medical Center, which has the second largest trauma unit in the area, is about a mile from the church.

“We try to personally bring the Eucharist when we can and be present for the anointing of the sick,” Msgr. Gordon said. “We try to give them a fresh perspective, one that sees everything from the viewpoint of eternal life.”

Father Bill Kenny, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Las Vegas, said he celebrated Mass for his parishioners Oct. 3, the evening after the service at the cathedral.

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for our believers to get together and share in that fellowship and that community,” he said.

Those who need support include those who helped, or even just those who saw the carnage. One young man in Father Kenny’s parish works for an ambulance service and rushed to the scene Oct. 1 to do what he could.

“They ran out of sheets to cover the dead, he told me,” Father Kenny said. “They were covering them with jackets. And he was telling me this, and he was sobbing, and I just held him and listened to him. He kept talking for about 15 minutes. There’s no way we can explain this. We can just listen and be there.”

Father Kenny celebrated Mass for the students at Bishop Gorman High School on Oct. 4, and, like Father Stoeckig, he invited students to look for and share the good stories. Six students talked about what gave them hope or inspired them, including the people who waited in line for hours to give blood, and those who are providing help to families that came in from out of town to find their loved ones.

Field hospital realities

In the face of all this, priests have been stretched thin, Msgr. Gordon acknowledged.

“The priests are doing their best,” he said. “We have the wonderful image that Pope Francis gave us of the Church as a field hospital, and we’ve felt like that.”

Father Stoeckig said there are 35 active, incardinated priests in the Diocese of Las Vegas, which was created in 1995. There are also several religious order priests and retired priests from other dioceses who have moved to the desert.

Overall, about 80 priests assist with ministry in the diocese.

The priests are leaning on one another, Msgr. Gordon said, because “we have to keep our humanity and spirituality nurtured to be of help to anyone else.”

But it can be difficult at times, Father Stoeckig said.

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“Priests can sometimes throw themselves into their work because there are so many people who need us,” Father Stoeckig said.

Father Kenny pointed out that priests are members of the community along with their parishioners, and they know many people who have been affected in ways big and small. “We are hurting, too,” he said. “I’ve been talking to some of my closest priest friends, maybe not as often as usual, but we know it’s important that we keep in touch.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.