NEWTOWN, Conn. — At the early service at Trinity Episcopal Church, an usher distributed a Kleenex box to every pew. Instead of perfunctory handshakes and peace-be-with-yous, the parishioners who packed the church opted for hugs, and held them long and tight.
The program for the service, printed last week, before the mass shooting that shocked the nation, listed only one name to be read during the weekly prayer for the deceased. But the names of 28 other individuals rang out into the otherwise silent church.
In churches across the country, congregants gathered to pray for the 26 victims — mostly children — shot in their school in one of the deadliest mass shootings in memory. In this western Connecticut town, they also prayed for the gunman and his mother, and tried to garner some sort of answer to the questions that have tested their faith over the past three days.
In Boston, some of the words of worship took on a political hue.
At the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley expressed sympathy for the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. He also called for a ban on assault rifles, and improvements in mental health care. The gunman, Adam Lanza, reportedly suffered from a mental disorder.
“As a whole country reflects on these tragic events, we must recognize our society’s inability to deal with mental illness in a more effective way,” O’Malley said. “It is also a clarion call to initiate effective legislation to keep automatic weapons out of the hands of private citizens.”
“What has happened in these days in Newtown, Connecticut, is a tragedy of almost biblical proportion,” he said. “It has caused the whole country to stop and take notice.”
At Morning Star Baptist Church on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, a congregation leader asked members who had lost a loved one to homicide to step forward. Dozens came to the front of the room. The Rev. John M. Borders III told parishioners to keep the Sandy Hook victims in mind.
“It’s a strange day we live in,” said Borders, the church’s senior pastor. “More violence is coming into public places. The enemy is trying to prove that hate is stronger than love.”
Still, Bishop urged his congregation to carry on with the normal events of day-to-day life without living in fear. Go to school and church, he said. Play sports. Attend your children’s ballet recitals.
“I don’t care how many people walk in with guns, we are not going to let that turn us around,” he said. “The world is going mad, but God is using that to define his church, and define his people.”
At Park Street Church, across from Boston Common, some congregants said that Friday’s tragedy had given them a new perspective.
“I think it has been a reminder of how broken the world is and how much more we need a savior,” said Katie Cahill , 31, who lives in Jamaica Plain. “As a mother of a young child, that’s all I have hope in.”
More prayer services and vigils were planned for Monday evening in Stoneham, Needham, and at the Paulist Center in Boston.
In Newtown, parishioners sought the solace of a church pew as urgently as in any town. As an overcast sky seeped rain and sleet, families poured into houses of worship around town, filling the pews as they sought to understand their loss.
“It’s an enormously trying time,” said Brian Wallace, spokesman for the local diocese. “In the parish, everyone knows someone who was affected by this. It’s extremely difficult.”
Some were touched by the frankness of pastors who admitted that they did not have all the answers. At Trinity Episcopal Church, where 6-year-old victim Benjamin Wheeler had been a member, the Rev. Kathleen Adams-Shepherd spoke of how she has grappled with the question of the day: Where was God?
“I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t honestly believe that every one of those precious lives are being held in the greatest love that could possibly be,” she said. “And that love is so amazing and so abundant that it’s overflowing onto those families.”
Faith, she said, could be fortified by thinking about the ways that Newtown’s community had pulled together in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“When I say ‘Columbine,’ what do you think?” Adams-Shepherd asked. “When I say ‘Virginia Tech,’ what do you think?”
“Death,” murmured one woman in the pews.
“I’m hoping when I say ‘Sandy Hook,’ that the world will think community, and hope, and love, and care, and light,’ ” Adams-Shepherd said.
A few blocks away, at St. Rose of Lima Church, each of the morning’s four Masses was packed with members and visitors. Crowds formed outside before the previous service had concluded. At the noon Mass, men and women lined the sides of the room and huddled in the foyer.
A vicar, the Rev. Luke Suarez, speaking quickly and in bright tones, described the way that the church had become a source of community never seen in recent memory in the town.
“You’ve come to the right place, and if there is any good that should come from this incident, you are seeing it now,” he said.
Then came a deeper voice on the loudspeaker, that of Monsignor Robert Weiss: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have had a threat made against us, and we feel it’s best if we evacuate the church.”
The phone threat was later deemed to be a prank, but it brought the Mass to an abrupt end. Police in camouflage tactical gear waited outside to search the buildings for danger. Quickly and mostly in silence, the parishioners stood and began to shuffle toward the exit.
“I don’t understand,” said one woman as she followed the crowd out into the gray day. “I don’t understand.”