Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

 “There will always be those who are attracted to the darkness,” Benedictine Brother Tobias Yott, pastoral associate at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, Virginia Beach, said. “But the darkness will never be able to put out the light.” 

On the steps before him, 12 candles flickered before the photographs of the twelve men and women who lost their lives in the May 31 shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, including St. Gregory the Great parishioner Katherine Nixon and St. John the Apostle parishioner Mary Louise Gayle.

Brother Tobias spoke to parishioners and guests who had gathered at St. Gregory the Great Tuesday, June 4 for an ecumenical prayer service, titled “A Time for Healing,” to honor their memory and to bring a measure of peace to the city in the wake of Friday’s tragedy.

Father Eric Vogt, pastor at St. Gregory the Great, said that the idea to host the service came to him as he waited Friday night at Princess Anne Middle School, the holding area where survivors of the shooting were reunited with their families.

“I thought, ‘We need to do something. We need to take a lead on this. To pray for our city — and for the world, too,’” he said.

He noted that Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s steadfast response — coming to Hampton Roads to celebrate Masses at St. Gregory and St. John the Apostle the Sunday after the shooting — cemented his resolve. (See related story, Page 4).

“The bishop made a great show of healing,” he said. “We wanted to follow suit.”

The service featured readings, prayers and meditations from Father Vogt; Rev. Robert Hunter, chaplain of the 192nd Wing, USAF; Rev. Joel Palser, chaplain at the Christian Broadcasting Network; Rev. Roger Cheeks, director of seminary and university outreach, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; Rev. Darrell Wentworth, deacon at St. Gregory the Great; and Brother Tobias.

Deacon Wentworth said event planners felt it was vital to invite pastors from different backgrounds and denominations to participate in the service.

“It’s important for clergy, despite our small differences, to come together in times like these,” he said. “The only way we can confront evil is with good, and the only one who is truly, fully good is God.”

The service began with the opening hymn, “All Are Welcome,” as the three Protestant and two Catholic clergy members and one religious processed into the sanctuary.

After an opening prayer led by Father Vogt, each member of the panel took a turn to speak.

Rev. Cheeks read from the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, in which Paul writes, “Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others.”

Rev. Cheeks reminded the congregation that Paul lived in times of turmoil.

“Paul faced death often,” he said, noting Paul was beaten with rods, suffered through shipwrecks and faced danger after danger on the roads that he traveled.

 “He experienced what we are experiencing right now,” Rev. Cheeks said. “And that is life.”

Yet, despite the evils of the world he lived in, Paul, in the epistle, advises the group of early Christians in Philippi to look to the good, to keep their eyes fixed on hope.

But how do we reconcile the two — the ideals we are to uphold as Christians and the grim realities around us? “How do I think on these things when the world around me feels like it’s crumbling?” Cheeks asked.

He advised that like Paul, people are to remember, “I can do all things through Christ. He is our hope. He is our redeemer.”

Brother Tobias also spoke of the stark contrast between the life that Christians are called to lead and the everyday world.

The culture, he said, has become one which all too often glorifies violence.

 “Look at the movies society craves, look at the music,” he said.

Yet, as Christians, all are called, as Paul said, to look for the good.

Brother Tobias urged the congregation to remember the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to save others, the employees who risked and who lost their lives coming to the aid of their coworkers, and all of the “ordinary people transformed by evil,” who, on the day of the shooting, embodied the light of Christ.

“But, it’s a mixed bag,” Brother Tobias added, reminding the congregation that there are no easy answers. The world is inherently good, but the fact that people are endowed with free will opens the door to the possibility of sin, he explained.

In the end, however, “all sin falls short to the glory of God,” he said. With the aid of Christ, people are called not only to look for the light in the darkness — but to be the light in the darkness, called to love in the face of hate, to be peacemakers in the face of violence.

“Our Gospel is tough. It faces any evil. It stands up to any wrong,” Brother Tobias said. “Christ will always be our salvation.” 

After the service, parishioners and guests gathered for prayer and quiet reflection before the photographs lined on the altar steps, while the world outside seemed to reinforce the message given by the clergy.

Blue pinwheels — the color of the Virginia Beach flag — spun in flowerbeds in a gentle summer breeze on what might have been a typical Tuesday night at St. Gregory, the night on which the parish holds religious education classes, the night when parishioner Katherine Nixon typically would have been at the church, discussing the week’s readings with the other parents while their children attended class.

 “She was always here,” said St. Gregory the Great parishioner and longtime family friend Toni Redifer. “She was a woman of faith who always wanted to keep learning. Just a beautiful, beautiful soul.”

While many said they were drawn to the service to remember friends and loved ones, others said they came simply to take their own small stand and to support the larger Hampton Roads community.

“I just felt compelled to be here, to be a part of the healing process,” St. Gregory the Great parishioner Patty Kelly said. “It’s been so sad. And the scary part is, it’s become a constant — it’s part of what we live with every day.”

Condolence Letter from Pope Francis and response from Bishop Knestout