Following the mass shooting that claimed the lives of 49 in Orlando, Catholics have tried to be the hands and feet of Christ in showing mercy to victims and their families and loved ones.
“We’re in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. And here we have individuals who are in tremendous need of mercy – the repose of the souls of those who are deceased, the family members, the friends, the tremendous shock that has occurred personally,” Gary Tester, executive of Catholic Charities Central Florida, told CNA on Wednesday.
The Diocese of Orlando’s response to the tragedy, he added, follows the words of Pope Francis, who “has called us to remember how important it is to simply love our neighbor.”
Early Sunday morning, 29-year-old Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay Orlando nightclub and began taking hostages. He killed 49 people and injured 53 more before he himself was killed by SWAT officers responding to the scene.
Authorities are still piecing together background information on Mateen, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call made inside the nightclub. Mateen’s ex-wife and one of his ex-coworkers have said they believe he was mentally unstable, while others have suggested that he was gay and had both used gay dating apps and frequented the gay nightclub socially before the attack.
Amidst the ensuing “great deal of chaos” on Sunday, the Diocese of Orlando offered prompt assistance to the victims’ families and loved ones, Tester said, including “grief support,” scheduling funeral Masses and burials, and financial aid.
“From our standpoint, we don’t discriminate in our services,” he said. “We simply serve God’s children in whatever way we’re called to do. And in this case, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are very evident.”
In the hours after the shooting, for those who wanted an update on the victims’ conditions but could not receive one, an “aid center” was designated adjacent to the primary hospital.
Clergy “began to minister as best they could to people without much information,” Tester stated. Since some family members, friends, or loved ones were not “next-of-kin” and thus could not receive the information they wanted, “we had deacons and priests and clergy listening to folks but not able to verify anything, just really offering a consoling shoulder,” he said.
Many of the victims were Latino, and bilingual deacons and priests listened to their families and loved ones at the aid center. Bilingual staff from Catholic Charities helped some priests ask questions and receive answers.
“Immediate grief response” has been the primary focus so far, Tester said. In addition to the sudden loss of loved ones, families have their own wounds they are struggling with, compounding the grief.
“Grief support is really just about offering that shoulder, offering that consolation, offering that listening, and trying to help guide as best you can, to help them put one foot in front of the other and to sustain them in prayer,” Tester said.
Loved ones of the shooting victims have been “tremendously appreciative” of the support, he added. “At a time where they may not know where to turn, we’re simply there to offer whatever it is that they need. And it’s all very individualized, each family is different.”
The outpouring of care for the victims’ loved ones has also been national. Catholic groups and parishes have been sending their support, and one Maryland parish sent blessed prayer shawls. In addition to the local ecumenical prayer service led by Orlando Bishop John Noonan, other dioceses and Catholic groups across the country have hosted Masses, rosaries and prayer vigils.
Local Catholics are practicing other works of mercy for victims’ families as well, like helping bury the dead. Tester cited Bishop Noonan, that “there are 49 families right now that are coming to terms with the fact that they have to bury someone they weren’t expecting to lose.”
Priests are “standing by to help, in whatever way they can, these families get their loved ones buried,” Tester continued.
“Immigration professionals” will be helping victims’ family members come to the U.S. for the funerals, or help send the victims’ bodies back to their home countries for burial, he added.
Catholic Charities partnered with the St. Vincent de Paul Society to help one family schedule a funeral home and Masses at local churches. Catholics are also gathering funds to aid families who cannot afford burials, or to support those who have lost breadwinners in the shooting.
“I think it’s been a very comprehensive response, and it’s becoming more coordinated each day,” Tester said.