Chaos and Pastoral Response

Unexpected tragedies are becoming all too familiar to us as they impinge on our peaceful ways of life. Catastrophes caused by natural events or misguided behavior are leaving communities deeply touched and even scarred.

Our pastoral responses can create meaning and bring a sense of purpose to survivors and victims of tragic events. This article highlights some of the useful responses we are capable of in the face of chaos and evil.

Crisis Ministry

The recent Boston Marathon bombing on Patriots’ Day created images that are burned into our memories. We are forever cautious and conscious when our worldview and our way of life have been so drastically altered. All of us realize that there are forces or factions in our society that seem to turn our dreams into nightmares.

In the past — before Sept. 11, 2001, and its catastrophe in New York — outrages such as bombings were foreign and intellectually horrifying. Now, once again in Boston, seeing fellow countrymen bleeding and broken, we experience the disaster emotionally. The Patriots’ Day bombing shook an entire nation, bringing shock, dismay, anger and deep sorrow. Americans shared the grief of the victims’ families with an overwhelming outpouring of assistance.

Our empathy has taken on new dimensions. We no longer feel that it can’t happen here. We need to become even more aware of the impact upon people by disasters caused by either human beings or nature.

Pastoral care is multifaceted. Not least among our ministries is what may be called “crisis” ministry. Crisis ministry, which speaks to life’s separations and losses, is an expression of the Church’s overall healing ministry.

How to relate to critical situations and bring healing and hope is a challenge we all face in pastoral life. Whether we find ourselves in the role of caregiver in a disaster area (due to flood, hurricane, fire, explosion or some other mishap) or that of an empathic observer thousands of miles away, we need to know how to respond.

Healing Our City

Our response might be to go and help in a direct way, or to raise money and supplies for those physically on the scene. But lacking preparation or readiness to respond only hinders what should be a healing and helpful presence. When a crisis occurs, parishes need to join together in consoling and comforting the injured and one another. We need to know how to intervene in these crises, whether we are responding to individuals or groups.

Within a short time after the Boston bombing, Cardinal Sean O’Malley opened the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for an interfaith citywide prayer vigil. Everyone wanted to participate and pray for the victims and the city. The president, the governor and the mayor participated in the prayerful vigil for healing.

The cardinal’s opening the Cathedral and inviting those broken by the blasts of the bombs became a nationwide broadcast and call for healing and hope. This is so very much in keeping with crisis–intervention. The sooner we ritualize our losses the better we can deal with feelings of loss and abandonment.

The prayer vigil in the Cathedral began with a presentation by Liz Walker, a Presbyterian minister well known in the Boston area, who set the tone by asking the question: “Where is God?”

Where is God?

She and the other speakers went on to relate how God’s presence was with us in the responses given at the scene. Lives were saved by men responding to the emergency who tore off their shirts to use as tourniquets to stop the bleeding from arm and leg wounds. Medical workers risked their lives when they hurried toward the direction of the blast to help. The selfless responses gave meaning to what otherwise seemed purposeless.

Our loving God never wills evil to happen. The responders in Boston demonstrated care and concern, goodness and kindness. Their courageous response was celebrated in the Cathedral and throughout the world.


The latest developments in grief research emphasize the need to reconstruct meaning in our lives. Along with trying to sort out what happened at a crime scene and the need to reconstruct it, there is also something even deeper. We need to find meaning and to make meaning in the face of tragic events. We are literally “meaning seekers” and “meaning makers.”

This too was evident in the liturgical intervening at the Cathedral in Boston as loss was placed into the wider context of faith. We need to rebuild trust and hope in our worldview. When our lives have been shattered, constructing a new worldview is an essential part of the grieving process.

The way we go through grief is best described with a “dual-processing model.” We focus on the loss (loss orientation), and we focus on the rebuilding (restoration orientation.) New studies about bereavement are very helpful as they emphasize that we do oscillate between both of these aspects. We need to revise our world — and rebuild it.

Storied Approach

Being with people at critical times is the heart of crisis ministry. We need to be present and willing to listen to their accounts of loss. This is not a one-time thing. Rather we are loving listeners to the story they need to tell, however they tell it. This is necessary so that the reality of the event can be accepted.

Listening also assists in providing meaning. What we have to listen for is how the person’s world needs to be revised and also how that reconstructing of a life is progressing. We have to simply keep in mind the two aspects of how people process events: listening and restoration.

There is no time limit for listening. When we offer parish support groups, we provide an ongoing forum for healing. These support groups are to be just that supportive; they are not meant to be therapy groups. The parish support group helps people searching for meaning to place their losses into the context of faith and trust.

Deaths, catastrophic illnesses, divorces and many other separations are disasters that parishes face every day. When we hear of a major loss, our awareness is heightened. But it is not enough to express sympathy. Those experiencing loss need help. We possess in our parishes many people who, with training, can intervene and bring hope to those feeling helpless and abandoned.

When tragedies occur, community leaders need to emerge. Very often the needs of a community in crisis are illuminated by religious leaders, mental health professionals and medical personnel.

When it comes to grief, the religious leader is a key person. Ways to come together and manage loss and increase resiliency are best expressed in a religious setting. This was so very apparent with the interfaith presentations in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Hope overtook despair. Courage overcame fear. Belonging overcame feelings of abandonment. Meaning was given in the house of the Lord.

We have to become familiar with what happens when disasters strikes. Familiarity with crisis-intervention and how to be present to people is essential. Let’s examine some aspects of disaster in our society.

A disaster brings out both the best and the worst in people. Human behavior can be selfless or valiant. There are, however, those who will take advantage of such situations and profit from others’ misfortunes by inflating prices for basic needs. Stealing and other crimes also occur as society staggers to regain its balance.

Where do people turn to await word about loved ones? How do they cope as their imaginations and fears overwhelm them? Certainly the Church is a vital force for stability as people watch and wait. We do relate to needs as people anxiously try to make some sense of the chaos.

Parish schools, halls or centers provide needed space for bringing people together. Shelter, food, drink and medical care are needed. Pastoral caregivers are needed to be present to people who have been numbed by events. The sooner people talk about what is happening, the better they will be able to manage the critical event.

Our knowledge about grief and trauma allows us to be prepared for terrible events. It is not that we want to live as if the other shoe will fall. However, preparedness is part of good pastoral planning. How will we as a parish respond to these events? A written plan formulated from discussions and meetings is invaluable for responding in the face of tragedies.

Grief and Trauma

In our nation’s recent history, we have sadly learned more about grief and trauma. One of the earlier reports and insights was presented by ABC News Nightline in a national broadcast about the Oklahoma City bombing. In interviews with rescue workers, first responders reported their need to talk to someone about what they had seen. It had become evident to them that talking it out was a healing experience.

Crisis work means giving victims, rescue workers and family members “permission” to tell their story. One mental health worker was quoted as stating, “Trauma is like cement. If you wait too long it hardens.” So trauma teams were formed to work with those in need.

Crisis ministry means that we as a Church are present with resources to help. Very often a parish that has been at the center of a disaster cannot help itself. So nearby parishes need to respond in effective ways. I witnessed this in New Jersey when I participated in a “Day of Prayer and Consolation” in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Neighboring parishes responded as true communities of faith in caring for parishes devastated by the hurricane. St. Paul tells us how, when one member of the Body of suffers, we all do, and this was demonstrated there.

The Monitor, the Diocese of Trenton’s newspaper, reported some of the remarks from that day. The comments do bring home the importance of having special time set aside for people in crisis. People talked about the damage that they had suffered.

Catching Our Breath

One person made the following remark: “The Day of Consolation put a name to some of the feelings I’m experiencing. The damage done by Sandy is a loss, but I didn’t relate it to a bereaved loss, so this is bringing it all together.” Another comment was, “This is helping me to see that I need to process what happened and look at the losses and find meaning there.” These remarks and others relate to how people respond and to their need to verbalize sorrows caused by critical events.

In the face of unspeakable sorrow we lose our breath. We need to be in contact with others for comfort and consolation. Breath and life are clearly themes from creation. Focusing on how we lose our breath in critical situations cries out for context. Scriptural references to breath provide purpose while we try to reconstruct meaning in our lives.

The Hebrew word ruah can be translated to mean breath, air or wind. When Jesus appeared to His disciples (Jn 20:22), they were afraid and withdrawn, trying to catch their breath. John records the remarkable event: “He breathed on them and said, “ ‘Receive the Holy Sprit.’ ” This reminds us of who first breathed into us the breath of life as described in the Genesis account. The suffering of Job also highlights the loss of breath amidst his sorrows.

Thomas Attig, who has made numerous contributions to our understanding of bereavement, wrote, “As we take our first breath at birth, the life we know begins. Through all our days, whether we are awake or asleep, breath flows through and sustains us. It animates our bodies, grounds us in a nourishing world, and feeds fires of our aspirations.

“In ordinary experiences, breath comes easily. A steady life companion, we take it for granted. Extraordinary experiences take our breath away. Breathless at the peaks, we are beside ourselves with joy. Breathless in the valleys, we are beside ourselves in sorrow. Joy and sorrow remind us that breath is precious. . .” (Attig, Thomas, Catching Your Breath in Grief . . .and grace will lead you home, Breath of Life Publishing, Victoria, B.C., Canada, 2012, p. 3).

Helping During Chaotic Events

Chaotic events certainly cause us to catch our breath. As loving listeners we are present to others. During and after a disaster, people need to work through and sortout their feelings. We should keep in mind the following ways of responding.

1. Allow the person to experience and express emotions. Feelings of anger, fear, loss and sorrow need to be expressed.

2. Be aware of and accepting of what has happened. Don’t contribute to any denial.

3. Help those suffering loss to regain a sense of balance with whatever resources are available. This may mean connecting them with a family member or friend who will comfort them. Companionship at this time is an essential aspect of healing.

As Christians we know that there is more to life than incidents; God is at work in the world even amid suffering and despair. In every event, we need to connect with our faith. This provides ways to discern meaning about the human situation in relation to God.

Clearly, it is difficult to find answers when confronting disasters. This is even more complicated when we realize that the disaster was deliberately perpetrated; in such a case, we are confronting the problems of both suffering and evil in the world.

Examining and Preparing Ourselves

If we are to help others, we need to examine our own feelings. We need to reflect on what we feel as we allow others to express themselves and their emotions. In preparation, we may want to reflect on Job, the Old Testament figure who suffered so much and responded in human ways with the full gamut of emotions.

Try to sort out the best approach to take in the face of intense suffering. In doing so, identify helpers who can be part of pastoral teams for individual disasters as well as for community disasters. This means being aware of ourselves as ministers who heal. Our parishioners need to see their parish, as well as the community at large, as a rich resource for healing.

Here are some helpful guidelines to keep in mind when developing this healing ministry within a pastoral setting:

1. Be present as soon as possible to the victims and survivors of critical events.

2. Develop an awareness of ways to be present, using crisis-intervention skills.

3. Listen in an empathic way as people tell their stories. Allow them to express their feelings authentically. This is especially important in dealing with anger.

4. Keep in mind that it is not our role to give answers. We shouldn’t be defensive, even when people blame God. Remember that they are trying to sort things out.

5. Stay with the victims during their initial time of shock and disbelief; they have to accept the loss a little at a time. When they are ready to accept the full impact of their loss, people often want to return to the disaster scene. You may have to accompany them.

6. Remember that the initial impact phase will be followed by the need for follow-up care.

7. The sooner a parish provides a prayer vigil or other suitable ritual for families, the better it is for grief management.

8. Keep in mind that rituals help release emotions. Don’t be overwhelmed by that, and don’t try to contain the crying out. It too is necessary for healing.

Responding with Resilience

What has to be noted about prayer vigils and days of consolation is the resiliency of the human heart. We are given strength to go through the darkest of times. Being resilient is still another important theme for approaches to bereavement and grief ministry.

We are given strength to restore our lives and catch our breath, not by ourselves alone but through grace which spiritualizes and ignites our strength in the face of adversity. Ultimately, in the wider context of faith and meaning, we realize that adversity has no power over us.

We do have to be sober and watchful. Our attentiveness to what is really significant in life prepares us ever so much more to help others during times of peril. Again we can turn to Thomas Attig with a concluding quotation for us to ponder: “Attending to breath opens us in humility to something larger than our lives, allowing us to resonate with the great, eternal silence that holds the universe and all surrounding mystery, reminding us of where we came from and reconnecting us with the ground of our being in grace” (Ibid. Thomas Attig, p. 19). TP 

Father Curley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and received his Doctorate in Ministry from Boston University and also as a licensed mental health counselor has ministered to the bereaved for over forty years. He teaches at St. John Seminary in the Theological Institute for New Evangelization. His latest work is a DVD with the Society of St. Paul, Canfield, Ohio. 1-800-533-2522. It is titled: “Rebuilding Trust & Hope, New Models for Grief and Mourning for the New Evangelization” (2013).