by Brian T. Olszewski
MILWAUKEE (CNS) – The killing of six Sikhs Aug. 5 at their temple in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek, Wis., brought an outpouring of spiritual support from leaders in the Catholic community, as well as a call for the entire community to examine violence in U.S. culture.
Assuring the Sikh community “that our prayers go out in solidarity with you,” Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said Aug. 6, “There’s an aspect of we want to do something to help ease the pain of that community; one of the things that immediately comes to mind is prayer so we turn our hearts and attention to God.
“We pray for God’s consoling and healing to be there for the Sikh community,” he said.
In an interview with the Catholic Herald, the publication serving the Catholic community in southeastern Wisconsin, Archbishop Listecki said he had just returned from St. Lawrence parish in St. Lawrence, Wis., where he had celebrated Mass, led a eucharistic procession and enjoyed a picnic dinner with parishioners as part of their annual feast day commemoration when he heard the news.
“I was totally taken aback. I was totally shocked that anyone would come in and do such an act of violence, but also to do it within the context of church, temple, synagogue, mosque,” he said. “Here are people coming together to worship God, and what happens? They’re confronted by evil. This tells us that we have to be mindful of evil in the world.”
According to police, the shooter entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin during a religious service and shot into the gathering using an automatic weapon.
He killed four people inside the temple and two more outside, then he wounded a police officer. A second officer shot and killed the gunman, who was later identified as 40-year-old Wade Michael Page.
Archbishop Listecki said people should expect to be safe in places where they worship.
“There’s no threat from people of faith, but there is the threat from those who suddenly would want to invade that sanctuary,” he said. “That’s what I felt – that a sanctuary had been invaded.”
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba, long active in interreligious and ecumenical affairs locally, nationally and internationally, said Catholics should consider several things as a result of what happened at the Sikh temple.
“We, as Catholics with our commitment to global solidarity, because we are Catholic, there is a universalism in our faith that we who are committed to global solidarity will be ever more conscious of the need to respect all religious traditions throughout the whole world,” he said.
The bishop said that, “because of our strong sacramental tradition,” the murders should serve as an opportunity for renewal of respect for all holy places and “every place that is deemed holy by those who gather.”
He also discussed an important religious item in the Sikh faith that symbolizes adherents’ own commitment to rejecting evil and violence: the kirpan, which is a miniature sword or dagger. The Sikh faith requires formally initiated members to at all times wear a kirpan, which is usually carried in a sheath and worn beneath clothing.
“It a symbol of their commitment to fight evil and to resist violence,” the bishop told the Catholic Herald Aug. 6.
Bishop Sklba recalled that when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in April, 2008, he, as then-chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, welcomed the pope to a meeting with interreligious leaders.
But the Sikhs were not among them, the bishop said, because the FBI would not allow anyone with weapons near the head of a sovereign state.
“So, because of government regulations, we were forced to take them off the list; that was a sadness, particularly because of the symbolism of the sword,” the bishop said. “And that’s what makes this all the more ironic – and tragic. The very people that are committed to fight and resist evil have become themselves a target in a twisted fashion of the same evil.”
Catholic News Service reported at the time that, rather than compromise on religious tenets that treat wearing a kirpan as a sacred obligation for professed believers, Sikh leaders and representatives of the USCCB agreed they should quietly decline the invitation to participate.