Twenty-eight candles burned high in the upper galleries of Old South Church in Boston Saturday, one for each victim of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut — and one for the young man who fired those shots, before turning the gun on himself.
“They evoke the lifting of the souls into the hearts and arms of God,” said Old South’s senior minister, the Rev. Nancy Taylor, who said she lit the candles with two parishioners early Saturday morning. “It is impossible to on on with life as usual today, and tomorrow, and for some time, for us. It is important to have some visible, symbolic reminder of the wrenching, anguishing reality of today.”
Vigils and church services are being planned across the state in the wake of the deadly mass shooting, including one at Old South Church late Sunday afternoon.
On Friday morning in Newtown, Conn., 20-year-old resident Adam Lanza allegedly shot his mother in her home and then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he opened fire, killing 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six women, then killing himself.
“Unfortunately, after Columbine and Oak Creek and Aurora, we know how to do this all too well,” said the Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. “These are patterns of grief we’ve rehearsed too many times before. We know how to gather the candles, and the psalms of grieving and lament.”
Clergy are rewriting sermons, she said, and ringing church bells in honor of the dead. It is the season of Advent, “when God enters into the mess of human suffering,” she said, and this Sunday, ministers and priests will tell the story of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness.
“That sense of crying out in despair in a broken world resonates strongly this Sunday,” Everett said.
The vigil planned for Old South Church at 5 p.m. Sunday will be a simple event, said Taylor — they will read the names of the dead, light candles, and sing a song called “Prayer of the Children,” which, she said, was written for children dying in Bosnia and Serbia.
“It’s not going to be very many words, so much as tears, candles, silence, meditation, music,” said Taylor. “Words are pretty inadequate right now.”
Roman Catholic parishes across the Boston archdiocese are beginning to plan services commemorating victims of the shooting, said spokesman Terrence Donilon. St. John the Evangelist Parish in Townsend, he said, held a Prayer for the Dead of Newtown on Saturday night; St. James Parish in Salem kept its chapel open Saturday, playing music for quiet reflection; Immaculate Conception Parish in Everett has scheduled a prayer service for 6 p.m. Monday.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley will deliver a homily about the tragedy during Sunday Mass in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where he will be conducting the Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb, said Donilon.
It is a rite, Donilon said, in which O’Malley blesses not just the unborn children, but their parents, community, and parish.
Imam William Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centerin Roxbury said he opened two regular Friday services with a prayer for the victims and said he was prepared to join any interfaith response that emerges.
“Faith leaders have to be consistent in denouncing all violence,” Webb said. “We need to remind people of our responsibility to be stewards of goodness. If evil is going to work, good also has to work.”
On Friday night, members of the Temple Israel of Boston set aside moments of remembrance for the victims before saying the Kaddish, a prayer of mourning, said Rabbi Ronne Friedman, who is the senior rabbi of the temple. Then, he said, they spoke of their own families.
“Because it was the seventh night of Hanukkah, and the Sabbath, we had tons of kids there,” he said. “Families are asking, ‘what do we say to our kids, how do we speak about this?’ How could anyone, and particularly, any parent, not be devastated on hearing this, and not relate to this immediately?”
For some, the tragedy in Connecticut reopened wounds.
“It contributes to the feeling that it’s happening all the time, and all around us, and it doesn’t make any sense,” said the Rev. Liz Steinhauser, priest associate and director of youth programs at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the South End.
In September, she said, parishioner Jorge Fuenteswas shot to death across the street from his Dorchester home at just 19 years old.
Steinhauser said her parish was already planning a Monday night vigil, during which they will sing “Silent Night” to call for peace in their neighborhood. They will be speaking, now, about the Connecticut shooting, in addition to their own tragedies.
The role of the church in the wake of such a horror, said Everett, is both to comfort the grieving and to call for an end to gun violence.
“I don’t live with the illusion that my words can offer much consolation in the face of this grief. That’s God’s role, not mine,” she said. “But the church is absolutely a part of the conversation about reasonable gun laws to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Boston TenPoint Coalition, said he had encouraged other faith leaders in the group to address the shooting at prayer meetings Saturday and at regular services Sunday.
“I think we give a very crucial moral voice to the indignities of murder and violent mayhem that permeate our communities,” he said. “Faith leaders are the ones who can say that it’s not OK, and that we have an obligation as a larger society to do something about it.”
He is working with national faith leaders, he said, to coordinate a response to the shooting in Washington D.C. Tentative plans call for faith groups to descend on the capital during the president’s State of the Union address next month and protest gun violence, he said.
MoveOn.org, a liberal political group, was working Saturday to organize vigils across the country to call for an end to gun violence. MoveOn’s website showed vigils planned across the state and as far away as Soldotna, Alaska.
“It’s going to be a cri de coeur, a cry from the heart, about what happened yesterday,” said Ken Brociner, 63, of Somerville, who volunteered to organize the Davis Square vigil late Saturday afternoon, in an interview before the vigil. “We are not just expressing our sadness and outrage, but were also going to be calling for strong gun control and legislation.”
It is impossible to know, said Everett, how long people will be grieving. Balancing sorrow and anger, she said, will be difficult.
“The violence that goes on in our world in so many places is horrifying. It is a spiritual discipline not to avert our eyes,” said Everett. “The challenge for all of us is to sit with this grief and shock. And to not do it alone.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.