By Maria-Pia Negro Chin
Community members gathered in Uvalde, Texas, to pray and honor the 21 lives taken last year in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
“We kneel once again today before God, united and looking for ways to support each other. We continue sharing the pain while we give thanks for the greatness of the short lives that were taken from us a year ago,” said San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller during a bilingual Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Uvalde May 24, the first anniversary of the tragedy.
The Remembrance Mass, which community members requested, drew more than 500 people to Sacred Heart Church, according to the San Antonio Archdiocese. People were standing in the back and sides of the church and others outside of the sanctuary to honor the memory of those who were killed, most of whom were 10 years old.
The pastor greeted people from different sectors of the city, including families and friends of the 19 children and two teachers who were killed. Also present were students and teachers from different schools, including Sacred Heart Catholic School, and members of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities, religious sisters, counselors and Catholic Extension representatives.
During his homily, Archbishop García-Siller recognized the difficulties felt within the hearts of suffering families, acknowledging different grieving processes, and adding that their presence at the Mass was a testament of love, present even in sorrow.
“The fact is that we are here. That means that love won,” he said at the Mass, which was livestreamed. “In the midst of all that has been happening, and all that we have gone through — and we will continue dealing with — love wins. … Let us just thank the Lord for allowing us to experience that love conquers everything. True love conquers everything.”
He talked about one of the readings during Mass from the Acts of the Apostles where people weep when saying goodbye to Paul because “they would never see his face again.” This sorrow is something that community members in Uvalde can identify with, he said. “I’m sure there have been many times in this past year that you have experienced, we have experienced, loneliness,” he said. “But we never walk alone.”
“United with Jesus, making his will our own, we are guaranteed to share one day in the fullness of the Lord’s own joy, together with those we have been called to love in this life,” he said.
The Holy Spirit, “the consoler,” is sent by the Father at Pentecost to make Jesus present and “can heal all wounds,” he said in Spanish.
With the Holy Spirit, healing is possible so “so that the tears which we unite to Christ’s are not shed in vain,” he added. “He can enable us to build bridges which unite the community.”
Archbishop García-Siller said that “our desire for unity in this community, for healing, consolation and blessing is only possible if we, brothers and sisters, commit our own lives to hard work to make that reality possible.”
“Let’s love one another and teach our youth to choose the path of peace instead of violence. May we overcome evil with good,” he said.
After the homily, Elvira Sanchez Kisser, the director of archives of the archdiocese, talked about a glass sculpture commissioned for the community at the archbishop’s request titled “Love in the Time of Great Suffering.” Meant as a visual guide for “transforming our grief into something more,” it is three glass hearts: an injured heart, a heart in the process of being mended and comforted by the Virgin Mary, and a heart transformed through the Holy Spirit.
“It was an invitation to transformation” in the healing process, Archbishop García-Siller told OSV News in a phone interview after the Mass. “But it’s a very slow process because we have to respect where everyone is at in the process.”
Following the presentation of the artwork, Marti West, superintendent of the Archdiocese of San Antonio Catholic Schools Office, read the names of the honored victims. Family and friends brought forth candles in remembrance as each person’s name was read and placed them in front of the altar and the artwork of the hearts and the Virgin Mary.
“It was a beautiful moment of peace,” said the archbishop.
There were 22 candles present, with the extra candle representing the husband of Irma Garcia, a member of the Sacred Heart community and one of the two teachers killed by the shooter. An archdiocesan spokesperson said he died due to a heart attack he suffered while visiting a memorial to his wife less than 24 hours after the shooting.
Community members later told the archbishop that the Mass was helpful for everyone present. Some talked about the homily and the glass artwork, and others spoke about a “sense of the Spirit working” in the community that, at times, has been divided.
Since the shooting, it has been reported that the city of 15,000 residents has experienced division over gun control and calls for accountability and transparency in investigations into law enforcement officers’ response to the shooting.
“With the help of each other, we need to grow together, to stay together, to build bridges together,” Archbishop García-Siller told OSV News. He also stressed the need for mutual respect in his homily.
Uvalde and surrounding towns are part of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which has been assisting family members affected by the violent act. In the days after the tragedy, Archbishop García-Siller celebrated Mass at Sacred Heart daily and has continuously visited the community. Chicago-based Catholic Extension, which supports the church in America’s poorest regions, provided scholarships for some of the surviving children to attend Sacred Heart Catholic School and has provided additional support for the community.
During the interview and the homily, Archbishop García-Siller mentioned the need to end gun violence, and the efforts of mothers and fathers in the community to change gun laws. “We need to stop the culture of violence,” he said, speaking broadly about the United States. “It’s unbearable because violence has multiplicated in the country in so many ways, particularly about shootings. We need to change minds and hearts.”
The archbishop said the Remembrance Mass helped people feel “nourished.” Before Mass, some people were understandably tense, sad and angry, but they had more peace after the Mass, he said. “They were freer. And they were crying. But their cry was not dark and alone. They knew that all of us wanted to be there. And that we are looking for a new Uvalde,” he said.
Following the Mass, the archbishop spent time with the families of the victims and survivors who had stayed. He later went to each of the parish school’s classrooms and talked to the students. As they have been during the year, counselors were available to assist those processing grief and trauma.
Counselors from the Bereavement Center of San Antonio released butterflies at a ceremony following the Mass, and children were given clothespins for a project to craft artwork butterflies as a tribute to the victims of Robb Elementary. They also sang hymns and prayed.
Earlier at the Mass, a Sacred Heart student expressed gratitude to everyone who had supported the community. “Jesus said, ‘When two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in his place.’ We will remain united and in prayer as we face our daily challenges,” she said.
“We trust that Our Lady of Guadalupe will continue to accompany the families of Uvalde,” the archbishop said.