Nanette Levin, Special to The Catholic Virginian

April 16th is a somber day of reflection but also a day to celebrate life at the Virginia Tech (VT) campus in Blacksburg. Eleven years ago, 55 people, including students and teachers, were gunned down in nine minutes. Thirty-two died.

This year, Bishop Barry C. Knestout came to campus on Sunday, April 15, to offer a reflection during a prayer service at the Memorial site.

“How do we transform that grief into a sense of hope?” asked Bishop Knestout. “We share in a Paschal Mystery, we sacrifice self in small and great ways in which we show that sacrificial love which Jesus expressed in his passage from death to resurrection . . .to give us that pathway from grief.”

He continued, “When a tragedy affects a whole community, particularly a significant part of the community, it’s important for us as a Church to recognize the loss that occurred but also to bring to that grief and loss the hope that comes from our faith, the hope that comes from the Gospel.”

The prayer service was organized by Father David Sharland, chaplain to the Newman Community, i.e., Catholic campus ministry, at VT, and by Deacon Mike Ellerbrock of St. Mary, Blacksburg, who spoke at the service.

“How that community rallied around here — it was the most evidence of the Holy Spirit I’ve witnessed in my life,” said Deacon Ellerbrock, referring to the tragedy. A professor of economics at VT for 26 years, he and his daughter were at the school when the shooting began.

“The evil that erupted that day was definitely not about Virginia Tech or Blacksburg,” he said. “It can happen in any community. We knew that very day that Virginia Tech was the new Columbine and what surprised us all was how deeply the community bonded and rallied with each other.”

Deacon Ellerbrock explained the university closed for a week after the shootings. With about three weeks left in the semester, students were given the option of not coming back for the remainder of the year with the offer to honor their existing grade. Ninety percent returned.

“It was beyond inspiring,” he said. “All those 20-year-olds came back to campus and they were together with each other. They came back because they love this school and love each other. They did not want Virginia Tech to be defined by the worst school shooting in America. That’s not who we are or what we’re about.”

Among the more than 150 students attending Sunday’s prayer service was Ali Buck, a junior from Charlotte, North Carolina, majoring in communications and Spanish.

“I think it’s (the prayer service) more a celebration of life at this point because we have the 3.2. It’s good to have alumni back and remember the students’ lives,” she said, referring to the 3.2-mile community run/walk around the VT campus intended to bring Hokies together “to feel the support of the community and to celebrate the lives of our friends and family members,” according to the VT website. It’s commemorative, too, as the mileage represents the number of people killed in 2007.

For Gina Smith, the prayer service was an opportunity to experience the Memorial in a different way.

“I’ve been wanting an opportunity to experience the Memorial through more than just walking through it,” said the Richmond freshman majoring in wildlife conservation. “It was nice to combine it with my faith and to honor April 16th.”

Chris Hitzelberger, director of Catholic campus ministry at VT, had praise for Catholic students’ dedication to their faith and for the bishop’s outreach.

“What’s been beautiful about our new bishop is his commitment to campus ministry and the joy that he brings,” Hitzelberger said. “It’s funny that you would think of him as a rock star, but he really is.”

Madison Sutherland, a human development major from Fredericksburg, was glad Bishop Knestout participated in the service.

“It was amazing to have (Bishop Knestout) here just to remember everyone who was afflicted by the tragedy and to pray for them,” she said. “I think it brings the true definition of Hokie Nation back to Blacksburg.”

Deacon Ellerbrock told the gathering the bishop was there “because he cares about your past, present and future.”

He noted later, “The bishop’s presence speaks volumes about his concern for his flock.”