We Are All Columbine

Filed under: At Home,

To whatever degree a person was affected by the Columbine shootings, I don’t think anyone’s memory of that day has diminished at all. Instead, each anniversary seems to become increasingly more sorrowful.

I attended J.F. Kennedy High School a few miles away from Columbine, and I was a junior in 1999. Our schools defined the county line between Denver and Littleton, so we students were very familiar with each other. We attended the same primary schools and, now in high school, shared the same common streets, restaurants and hangouts. Having missed the shootings by such a small degree has always haunted me.

This tragedy was an entirely new phenomenon at the time, and afterward we all struggled to understand it. But none had it so hard as the parents of the victims, who handled their grief in various ways. Some never entered the public eye, while others headed efforts to rebuild the school, create a memorial or prosecute the unprepared police team. It became a state-wide mobilization because no one knew how to do the most necessary thing of all: heal.

There were funerals and tributes. Every item owned by the victims became a memorial—flowers were strewn over their cars, and books were published of their diaries. But these actions were only a temporary distraction. A futile, human way to attempt to understand an event that was beyond human understanding.

I never forget an anniversary. I remember all their names, I see all their faces. And each year I feel a terrible, aching hurt because the faces look younger and younger. I grow older every year, having aged by time, knowledge and experience. But those 12 students never aged. They were never 19, 21 or 30. They didn’t see their friends anymore. They never went to school again.

One anniversary in particular, the ninth, was significant for me in the path to healing. April 20 fell on a Sunday that year, and I was preparing to attend the afternoon Mass at Yankee Stadium celebrated by Pope Benedict during his United States visit. As part of the Catholic Press I had worked around the clock that week covering the historic trip, but Sunday was my day to experience it as a faithful person. That morning getting ready, alone in my apartment, I watched live on television the Pope’s first event of the day, his visit to Ground Zero.

I was struck by the coincidence that the Pope should visit the Trade Center site on that day, where another terrible instance of evil had taken place. During his prayer service there, I was thinking mostly of the Columbine students. When he finished, a few pre-selected family members of 9-11 victims were allowed to greet the Pope, and during those meetings I witnessed an extraordinary thing.

As the first family member, a middle-aged woman who had lost her husband, knelt down at the Pope’s feet to kiss his hand, she was overwhelmed with emotion. She couldn't stand back up. It was a heartbreaking pause in an otherwise well-rehearsed event. Everyone waited for her to stand, but instead the Pope himself reached down, took her arms, and pulled her to her feet.

Tears sprung to my eyes. The woman smiled a weak smile, and the Pope said a few unheard words to her. He repeated this action as each family member approached him, and I knew at that moment that Christ himself was touching these people, picking them up and whispering words to them.

We are human, struggling to live through the terrible evils of this world, but we cannot heal alone. We are not strong enough. Only someone like the Pope, acting on behalf of God and his angels, can help us to overcome such grief. Only then is our despair turned into hope.

After that anniversary I felt differently about the memory of Columbine. That fearful, lost feeling I'd felt before, a feeling that accompanies all shocking and untimely death, was gone. Instead I'd reached a certain peace that is comforting in its non-human strength. Perhaps this is the mercy we all pray for: a peace that, although it is sad, although it is without reason, is without pain.

Columbine Memorial

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