School tragedies bond two priests in faith and compassion

NEWTOWN—An ocean and 3,000 miles separated two Catholic priests in Newtown, Conn., and Dunblane, Scotland, but they were brought together in faith, friendship and suffering by the terrible tragedies they shared.

The bond that developed between Msgr. Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, and Msgr. Basil O’Sullivan, pastor of Church of the Holy Family in Dunblane, is the topic of a recently released film titled, “Lessons from a School Shooting: Notes from Dunblane.”

The 22-minute documentary by the director of the film “Newtown” follows the two priests in the months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, which took the lives of 20 young children and six educators. Eight of the children and one adult were from Msgr. Weiss’s parish.

Msgr. O’Sullivan, whose community lost 16 children and one teacher in the deadliest mass shooting in British history on March 13, 1996, reached out to Msgr. Weiss and shared his own experiences and offered compassion and encouragement.

Msgr. Basil wrote, “Your tragedy brought a lot of memories back to us here in Dunblane…I write to inform you that in this Church of the Holy Family, there were prayers and tears for you all at Mass this Sunday morning.” Thus began an exchange between the two priests,  trying to bring compassion and hope to their communities, and searching for light as they confronted the darkest of evils.

In an on-camera interview, Msgr. Weiss says, “This hurt is so real; it’s just unimaginable that something like this could happen here. How do you live with it?”

Later, he adds, “I will admit it continues to overwhelm me. I find myself exhausted —physically I’m exhausted, spiritually I’m exhausted … and emotionally.”

Msgr. O’Sullivan confided that he could not stop crying in the months following the Dunblane shooting and that he suffered an emotional breakdown. For a year or two, the sight of a five-year-old would make him weep. He turned off his television because the violence disturbed him so much.

Both priests received counseling and rehabilitation, but to this day, Msgr. Weiss still suffers from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I break down a lot,” he said in a recent interview. “I haven’t slept well one night since this happened, and I have terrible anxiety about flying and crossing bridges. It has been hard, and it has certainly taken a toll on me physically and emotionally.”

At the invitation of Msgr. Weiss, the Irish priest, who was then 81, came to Newtown to mark the first anniversary of the shooting. A humble man, he described himself as “a very ordinary chap with no charisms of any kind.” And yet in a moving display of faith, this simple man of Christ told the congregation at St. Rose of Lima, “Love, although it looks weak, always overcomes hatred and evil.”

“To me, the message of the documentary is that you never know what is going to bind you to another person,” Msgr. Weiss said. “In this day and age, the film captures a different side of the priesthood that is really important. It points to the importance of faith in the midst of tragedies like this. We were both called on to minister to the families we knew. Priests are human and just because you’re a priest doesn’t mean you don’t feel and experience the terrible loss.”

In October, St. Rose of Lima hosted a screening of the film, which won a first prize at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Producer Maria Cuomo Cole and director/producer Kim Snyder were on hand, along with former Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra. The film, which can be viewed on Netflix, includes news footage, interviews with the priests and coverage of Msgr. O’Sullivan’s visit to Newtown.

Looking back, Msgr. Weiss says, “The one thing that really surprised me in my situation is that from the beginning, people saw this clearly for what it was — an act of evil by a very sick young man. For me, it was not a matter of losing faith in God, but of losing faith in people. The lack of respect for life that has overtaken this country just amazes me.”

On the Sunday after the tragedy, he recalls, the church had to be evacuated because someone made a threat against it. SWAT teams and police cars arrived in the middle of the service.

“The accumulation of that within 48 hours just was overwhelming,” he said. “Why would a person call us in the midst of all this and want to inflict more evil? That is what we had to struggle with as we tried to rebuild our lives.”

The path to healing and forgiveness has not been an easy one, he said. The emotional strain weighed heavily on families in the community, and in some cases led to breakups, substance abuse and domestic turmoil.

“The tragedies in these people’s lives continue and as a priest, you have to be present,” he said. “What we learned rather quickly is that tragedies happen every day. For a while, we got so focused on this that we failed to be sensitive to others who lost a spouse or lost a child in another situation. There were a lot of lessons to be learned going through this.”

With each anniversary, anxiety wells up in the community. “This is a little town with limited resources that had to deal with 26 deaths,” he said. “To this day, it has taken a lot of local concentration and energy. Every time there is another shooting, the media look back to Sandy Hook and you have to keep reliving it.”

The town is currently considering a permanent memorial to the victims, and while some residents question the decision, many others are convinced it is something that must be done.

The tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School has affected the community in countless ways, he said. Today, even the parish school has a security guard and a counselor.

At the same time, his congregation is looking to the future with renewed hope. St. Rose of Lima is currently in the middle of a $6.1 million church renovation, and the enthusiasm that the project has inspired is a positive development, he believes.

“That’s a sign we are moving ahead,” he said. “People are excited about it. The whole town is excited about it. In addition to the renovation, we are building an addition and creating a Garden of Peace that is going to be really beautiful.”

Msgr. Weiss, who has been pastor for 19 years, is three years away from retirement. He would like to remain a fourth year, which would be his 50th anniversary as a priest, bringing Christ to others in joyful times and in their darkest hour.

Looking back on the past six years, he says the school shootings at Sandy Hook and Dunblane are tragic reminders that “Something has to change. We have to reclaim the value of human life, and the changes have to come from within each person.”