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Newtown priest: 'We need to keep moving forward, but we cannot forget'

Newtown priest talks about faith in the face of tragedy
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Monsignor Robert Weiss stands in the Peace Garden at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown on May 26, 2022. The paved center is a burial vault containing all of the notes, gifts and letters left behind at the initial memorial in the days after the Sandy Hook tragedy.

This Wednesday, Dec. 14, marks 10 years since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Monsignor Robert Weiss was a spiritual first responder at Sandy Hook and officiated the funerals of eight of the 20 children who died. Lori Mack spoke with him about the 10-year remembrance and why it's important to him to be there.

These interview highlights have been edited and condensed.

Mack: Under church rules you were supposed to retire last year, but you made a special plea to the bishop to stay at St. Rose of Lima Church for another two years to mark this milestone remembrance. Why did you want to do that?

Monsignor Weiss: A number of significant changes happened in Newtown since the tragedy. Our first selectman retired, the police chief, the superintendent of schools, many of the people who are so intimately involved moved on. Those who remain have to be the spokespeople having lived through it.

Mack: As a spiritual leader, how do you navigate remembering and at the same time, the need to move on?

Monsignor Weiss: Naively, I thought this would change the world and change people's attitudes about gun violence. How wrong I've been over these 10 years. But nevertheless, we still see the pain that has come from this situation. That's something we have to hold on to, that these situations are not just something we take for granted.

Mack: You hold a vigil every year. This year's memorial Mass will be held Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 7 p.m. As you approach this vigil, is there something, a perspective you've gained over time?

Monsignor Weiss: These events are happening all over the world. As much as this community was a place of quiet, it was just a residential community where families chose to raise their children, it happened here. It made all of us start to realize the horrors that come from mental health issues. Again, another issue we don't seem to be very capable of solving. These issues have not gone away. If anything, they've intensified.

Mack: Every year and I imagine, especially this year, there are constant reminders of this tragedy in the news. What impact is that having?

Monsignor Weiss: It's painful. You reach a saturation point. Every time there was another school shooting, we seem to be the focal point referred back to, most recently with Uvalde. The last few years, we've closed the schools for the day and left that up to parents to work through with their children. And it wasn't so much that, as it was, we're afraid of a copycat. Will somebody come and try this again? It's hard to imagine unless you really lived through something like this, what you fear.

Mack: You mentioned Uvalde, you spoke with us earlier this year after the shooting at that elementary school in Texas, and you mentioned the importance of being present. Can you say a little more about that?

Monsignor Weiss: When I was going through this, I had no experience in dealing with something of this magnitude. But what I realized, what people appreciate the most, was just my presence being there. [Weiss pauses.] Excuse me, it brings back a lot of memories. Just being with a family, you're not necessarily saying anything, just being with them, holding hands in prayer, and just knowing that there's a community that's out there praying for them. I think that is what impressed me the most about what my role was supposed to be.

I didn't have the talent to really know how to handle any of this. I just trusted in my faith. I trusted in the Lord's grace, and I worked diligently to try to be as present as I could, to whoever needed me.

Mack: Monsignor Weiss, before we close, is there anything you'd like to add?

Monsignor Weiss: Just so grateful for the outpouring that came to our community. First of all, I realized the universality of the Catholic Church. I heard from priests throughout the world. But I think the kindness shown to this community was overwhelming. And because it was Christmastime, it was even more so. But the letters, the consolation, that continued affection for this community; they're great gifts to us.

That's something that's helped us move forward the best we could and experience some kind of healing.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.