Responding with Compassion to Local, National, and Global Tragedy

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Three critical responses for catechetical leaders


No one prepared me for this. This thought weighed heavily on me in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. As the horrific news broke about the school — located near our parish boundaries — shock, horror, grief, and fear gripped everyone. Our parish team came together to plan an evening prayer service and prepare for an onslaught of visitors at the weekend liturgies. Providing ministry in a particular way to frightened children, young people, and their parents became a priority.

In the 19 years since Columbine, there has been an average of 10 school shootings per year, resulting in 375 deaths or injuries. Over 187,000 students have had a firsthand experience of fleeing classrooms and mourning dead or injured classmates. Shootings
in schools are just one form of tragedy that can traumatize a local community and send ripples of grief, anxiety, and fear across the nation and the world. Additionally, suicides, accidents, natural disasters, incidents of racial or xenophobic violence, and political upheaval all impact our lives in varying ways.

The distressing news that permeates our lives cannot be set aside when we come together each week to celebrate the Eucharist, take on the tasks of evangelization and catechesis,
or live out our call to discipleship. The image of the Church as the body of Christ takes on even greater significance when our brothers and sisters are suffering. It matters little whether they are in the next pew or halfway around the world. The response we offer as parishes demonstrates our commitment to living as that one body

When I began my ministry as a parish catechetical leader, developing an emergency evacuation plan was only for the remote possibility of a fire. Now parishes must plan for lockdowns, parental notifications, escape routes, and active shooter instructions. Statistically, few of these will need to be carried out. What remains, however, is the importance of compassionate responses in the wake of human tragedy so that our ministerial efforts remain grounded in our participation in and care for the body of Christ.

Three responses are critical for catechetical leaders.

Face the situation

The first is addressing the tragedy in an honest and pastoral way. With easy access to social media and 24/7 news cycles, children are exposed to any number of traumatic headlines. These, in turn, generate fears and raise questions about the nature of the event and the possibility of something similar happening to them. Provide honest, age-appropriate information for children and encourage conversation with parents and other trusted adults. In the case of a violent event such as a school shooting, assure parents of parish plans to keep their children safe.

Pray with and for those affected

Praying for those affected by the tragedy offers families a way to express their own sorrow, concerns, and anxieties. Avoid the use of platitudes and facile explanations. Part of the challenge of our faith is facing the mystery of suffering without downplaying it or sidestepping questions about God that arise at such times. Psalms of lamentation are particularly helpful as a way to give expression to grief and renew our trust in God’s eternal presence.

Reach out with concrete help

Lastly, look for ways to involve families in reaching out to those affected by the tragedy. Sending sympathy cards to a parish family experiencing a tragic event, joining in parish initiatives to donate items to communities devastated by natural disasters, and sharing information about the work of Catholic Charities or Catholic Relief Services are just a few possibilities for responding in an active and empathic fashion. Each one is a positive way to move beyond reactions to caring and compassionate responses.


Kathy Hendricks is the national catechetical consultant for William H. Sadlier and author of the book, A Parish Emergency Kit: Responding with Compassion When Tragedy Strikes (Twenty-Third Publications). Learn more at

This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, February 2019Kathy


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