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Violence no more
As Catholics, we must help wrongdoers find the right path

By Michelle Martin


The church on violence

“Violence is never a proper response. With the conviction of her faith in Christ and with the awareness of her mission, the church proclaims ‘that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man.

‘Violence is a lie, or it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.’ ”
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 496.

On Oct. 30, Auxiliary Bishop Gustavo García-Siller celebrated a Mass for victims of violence at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood. He read dozens of victims’ names, and met with their family members and loved ones.

On Oct. 31, another victim was added to the roll: Leticia Barrera, shot in gang crossfire as she returned home from trickor- treating with her three children. She was four months pregnant, and it was her 32nd birthday.

Bishop García-Siller led her wake service at St. Michael the Archangel Parish Nov. 5, 48th St. and Damen Ave.

“He just wrapped this whole thing up in the Word of God,” said Father Thomas Cima, St. Michael the Archangel’s pastor.

The church has a response

Providing support and comfort through the rituals of funerals and wakes is one of the ways in which the church is obligated to respond to violence, according to Bishop García-Siller and several priests who serve in communities where such violence has happened all too often.

“Violence is an unhealthy thing,” the bishop said. “It is destructive. We are called to life; life is our goal. We are made by God who is the God of life. Some people think death is the end, but it’s not. After death, there is resurrection and new life.”

But the obligation of the church, the People of God, goes much further. The church must walk with the victims through their mourning and grief and healing, and it must also work with the wrongdoers, to heal them and help them find the right path.

Precious Blood Father David Kelly lives and works in a house in the Back-of-the- Yards neighborhood, offering a ministry of reconciliation.

Helping people find new life in the wake of violence is “directly tied to the central beliefs of Christians,” Kelly said. “It’s the power of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. There’s hope in the midst of this.”

In practice, that means reaching out to victims of violence and their family members, listening to them and helping them join into “peacemaking circles” where they can share their feelings, and, they hope, move beyond the grief to a new place.

Those whose grief is raw—the mother who has not left her home for a year after losing her only son, or the parents who had two sons gunned down within three months—can take hope from others who have found new ways to live.

“They can say, ‘I know how you feel,’” and there’s comfort in that,” Kelly said. “They can see that maybe I won’t always be like this.”

Asking ‘Why?’

Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Parish in Auburn-Gresham, knows the feeling of helplessness that can strike family members. In 1998, his 17-year-old foster son was shot. He died in Pfleger’s arms.

“I have buried my mother and my sister,” Pfleger said. “The most difficult thing I have had to do was bury Jarvis. That was the one time I felt paralyzed, like I couldn’t make it. It was only my faith that pulled me out of it.”

Those who work in the Precious Blood reconciliation ministry also serve in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center through Kolbe House, the archdiocesan prison and jail ministry.

The young people in the center have their own peacemaking circles. When they return home, the ministry of reconciliation is there for continued support and mentoring.

When possible, Kelly said, the families of the victims and those who have harmed them can come together.

“The victims often want to know, ‘Why? Why did my son have to die?’” Kelly said. “And the accused, many times they want to say ‘I’m sorry.’ There’s a lot of remorse happening, but the legal system doesn’t allow for it until after the trial is over.”

Violence no stranger

Father Matthew Foley, pastor of St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish in Little Village, said that many, if not most, of the shootings are done by people who are very young, hoping to prove themselves to older gang members, and who have no idea of the ramifications of what they’ve done. Many of those young people have been exposed to violence in their own homes.

“Domestic violence is the number one call to the police in our neighborhood,” he said. “I always wonder what a child sees. I think it makes them almost numb.”

St. Agnes of Bohemia tries to honor the mourning process by having nine days of prayers with families, and then making a procession with the Blessed Sacrament to the site where the violence took place. This year, the parish has had six or seven of those processions, Foley said.

In less than a year, Cima has been called to minister to families of two 14-year-olds who were shot to death. The parish will continue to support the families, including offering material help through Catholic Charities’ Casa Catalina at Holy Cross- Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. It will continue to advocate for an end to the violence— and for community supports like better schools and counseling for first-time homeowners, to help them avoid foreclosure.

“I think the economic situation is part of this,” he said. “The social-justice message of the church is one of interconnectedness.”

The parish also welcomes the young men to play basketball in its gym four nights a week, and the priests and others talk to them about how destructive violence is.

“We are able to have an impact on some days,” he said.

Some days, they don’t. But that cannot stop the church from reaching out.

“Our mission is what we do because we go to church. Our worship is as real as it is lived out,” Pfleger said. “If you read the Gospel, Jesus’ whole ministry is reaching out to people in situations of crisis. That is our mission—we are the salt and the light.”

St. Sabina, St. Agnes of Bohemia and other parishes run many after-school youth programs to keep kids busy and out of trouble.

Hope in the Spirit

At Barrera’s wake, Bishop García-Siller invited gang members into church. In approaching them, and in approaching the families of victims, the bishop said, he relies on the Holy Spirit to help him make a connection.

“When I approach the gang members, you never know what is going to happen,” he said. “I am a human being as they are. They might be in a low place, but I have been in low places too. And they have been in high places too, because they are human beings. The Holy Spirit enters into the most intimate place of every human being.”

The Holy Spirit brings hope.

“It is our belief in God that is going to sustain us through this difficult time,” Cima said. “God is about life, not about death. Hope is what we do as Catholics. It’s how we survive.”

Parishes take steps to help communities

Chicago parishes have worked in various ways over the years to prevent gang violence and keep their communities safe. The efforts and outreach programs vary from parish to parish but the mission is the same: to spread Christ’s message of love for each one of his children.

Here are a few examples of these efforts:

■ Offering recreation opportunities for young people, from basketball in the gym at St. Michael the Archangel to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts

■ Linking victims’ family members and friends with others who have lost loved ones to allow them to support each other

■ Providing resources or referrals for services such as counseling or material help, from paying for the funeral to food for the family

■ Raising consciousness about violence by being visible, whether by participating in marches against violence or processions to the sites where violence occurred

■ Praying, in church and in public, for healing for the victims and offenders, and for an end to the violence

■ Offering mentoring and counseling opportunities for adolescents who might find it difficult to avoid violence on the streets

■ Helping adults, including those who have been convicted of crimes, find permanent employment

■ Sponsoring classes for adults in basic life skills, from English language lessons to computer applications, which, in turn, can help them find employment.


  • 380 murders
  • 3.8 decrease in murders
  • 29+ thousand violent crimes
  • 2.6 decrease in violent crimes
  • 124 violent crimes on the police beat where Leticia Barrera lived
  • 91 police beats that had more cases of violent crime

Source: Chicago Police Department, January-October