A few months ago I was sent a review copy of John Kiser's book, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria. It's a thorough presentation, rich in context, of the martyrdom of a Trappist community in an otherwise godforsaken stretch of the former French colony (the subject of the movie Of Gods and Men). Unsurprisingly, the message of the monks has been resounding in my mind over this past week.
Unlike the families of Newtown, the monks were not taken by surprise when their monastery was invaded by armed men. They weren't even the first religious community to be kidnapped or put to death in that civil war. But their deaths did something that the many (many) previous murders failed to do: bring the whole country up short. Within a short span, peace (well, stability) came to Algeria.
I think the events in that grade school last week may prove to have somewhat the same effect for us. There have been mass killings before. There have even been school shootings. And most of the time, the perpetrators fit so familiar a profile, you could practically describe them without knowing anything more than the body count. But after a while the media quiets down, and outside of the immediate locale, people mostly forget. Things go on unchanged until the next time.
Now, for all the (predictable) talk of gun control, something new has happened. People--ordinary people with jobs and minivans, mortgages and golden retrievers--are starting to tell their stories of coping (or not) with mental illness in the family. The first of these was Liza ("I am Adam Lanza's Mother") Long, whose post about her thirteen-year-old quickly went so viral that even posts about her post went viral and generated hundreds, even thousands, of comments. Another perspective came from Washington Archdiocese's Msgr. Charles Pope. He had written, just the day before the school massacre, about his beautiful sister's struggle with mental illness and the further tragedy that visited his home in the wake of his sister's untimely and horrific death. In the light of the Newtown tragedy, he revealed more about his family's failed attempts to get his sister the mental health care she needed. Read those posts, and read the comments, many from courageous people who live with mental illness and find the support they need to live richly even while under a heavy cross.
Like many families, my extended family has had to deal with various forms of mental illness. As has been the case with my relatives, most people with mental illness do not commit violent crimes, though a disproportionate number of people in our prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness (perhaps because our society does not pay attention to them unless something rather drastic happens). But until a disturbed young man fired on a rooms full of helplessly small children, the stories of quiet coping mostly went untold.
Maybe now we'll be able to talk about it. Out loud.
Today three USCCB Committees issued a joint statement calling for (in addition to better gun control laws), "healthcare policies that provide support to people with mental health needs, and [for] the entertainment industry to address the proliferation of violence and evaluate its impact in society."