By Christopher White
NEW YORK – As schools across the United States participate in the National School Walkout Day on Wednesday to raise awareness of gun violence, they will be joined by a number of Catholic institutions that are adding a prayerful component to the day’s events.
From Newark, New Jersey to Las Vegas, Nevada to Miami, Florida, Catholic schools are planning prayer services, masses, and special speakers to add a spiritual element to protests that have been organized to coincide with the one-month anniversary of the latest school shooting massacre which took place in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, leaving 17 students and teachers dead.
The national events are being organized by the group EMPOWER in an effort to pressure Congress to ban assault weapons, require universal background checks before gun sales, and impose other restrictions on individuals exhibiting violent behavior. Participants are encouraged to walk out of their classrooms at 10 am local time on Wednesday for a duration of 17 minutes, to mark the 17 lives lost in Parkland.
While dioceses are responsible for making their own decisions on how and if their schools participate, Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told The Tablet that she was encouraging Catholic institutions “to take a position in keeping with the nature and purpose of our schools.”
Prayer, Understanding, Engagement
“Our first response is to prayerfully deal with or support people who have been through a difficult tragedy, particularly the 17 students that were killed at Parkland,” said Fleming.
She acknowledged that, in many respects, the purpose of the walkout is to encourage political activism, and said that Catholic institutions should help students “understand and engage this issue in the classroom and the local level” from a perspective shaped by Catholic social teaching and the added dimension of the dignity of the human person.
Among the initiatives she recommended are walking out to pray for each of the students for seventeen minutes, special rosaries, and linking all of the activities to either Mass or another paraliturgical event.
In Newark, N.J., Superintendent Margaret Dames sent a memo to all archdiocesan schools saying that she and Cardinal Joseph Tobin were in agreement that its Catholic schools should be a part of the national voice and called on all schools to either commemorate the occasion with a prayer service or Mass.
A prerecorded video from Cardinal Tobin was to be played at the events, where the cardinal praised the students’ solidarity with victims of gun violence and said he would be joining them in prayer.
“I’m proud of you for taking seriously this threat to our well-being, as well as your resolve to be part of a national voice, and finally, I’m really grateful you want to do this in the context of prayer. While we count on our own efforts to make this a better world, really, at the end of it all, without the help of God and his grace, we’re going to be frustrated and even despairing,” the cardinal said.
“Your energy and your unselfish concern will be heard in the halls of our government. It’s true that we can ban all of the guns in the world and never finally fully achieve peace without a commitment of our hearts. But we do need legal protections, and we have to ask questions about the type of firearms and their proliferation in our country today. I’m glad you’re asking questions, and I’m glad you’re united, and I’m glad you are a people of faith,” he continued.
Focus on ‘Constructive Dialogue’
In Las Vegas, where a mass shooting left 58 people dead and over 800 more injured last October, the Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Las Vegas, Catherine Thompson, told The Tablet that their schools were focused first and foremost on “constructive dialogue surrounding awareness, safety and healing.”
While she said each individual school would be left up to decide how or if to participate in the day’s events, she noted that the diocese had provided their principals with resources “for their use in prayer services and on campus activities that promote beneficial and productive discussions surrounding gun violence and ways to promote respect for life and safety within our school environments.”
In the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., students will not physically leave the premises but instead hold a campus prayer, and Bishop Ronald Gainer will hold two sessions of an online course he teaches for area Catholic school seniors as listening sessions on the issue of gun violence.
In Kansas City, Miss., Catholic high school students held their own walkout a week early since they could not participate in the National Walkout due to spring break.
Meanwhile, in the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Cardinal Blase Cupich recently appointed a former FBI agent to direct a gun violence prevention program for the archdiocese, the Superintendent of Schools Jim Rigg is encouraging their institutions to use the day to participate in “peace-building activities.”
In his letter to school principals, he suggested that the walkout be used as a time to pray for peace and also a time to create posters and signs to display at churches and school facilities.
While Fleming told The Tablet that it would not be possible to know how many Catholic dioceses or schools would be participating in the day, she estimated that the number would be significant.
Earlier this month, Bishop Frank Dewane, head of the USCCB’s Committee for Domestic Justice and Peace and Bishop George Murry, head of the USCCB’s Committee on Catholic Education, issued a joint statement calling on lawmakers to “address the crisis of gun violence in a comprehensive way” and also to remind Catholics of the U.S. bishops’ long-standing proposals for curbing gun violence.
Fleming told The Tablet that she hopes that for Catholic institutions, the National School Walkout Day would be an occasion “to connect the statements and teachings that we have had to questions of gun violence in the past and connect to this moment.”