By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Shaken students and employees at colleges and universities across the country turned to prayer, counseling and various types of outreach as they tried to understand the carnage that left at least 33 people dead at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., April 16.
Campus ministry programs in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York were among those compiling books of prayers from students for their counterparts at the southwestern Virginia university. A 23-year-old student, Cho Seung-Hui, is believed to have killed 32 students and faculty members and wounded more than a dozen others before turning one of the two guns he had on himself.
That same day and in the following week, special Masses and vigils were planned at campuses in many states. Colleges thousands of miles away were quick to offer counseling help for their own students as they tried to come to grips with the idea that people very much like themselves could be killed while attending a German or engineering class.
Catholic campus ministry programs at state and private universities began putting together books of prayers from their students which will be forwarded to Virginia Tech. At William Paterson University in New Jersey, Father Louis J. Scurti, the Catholic campus minister, was planning a memorial Mass later in the week and encouraging representatives of other faiths to participate.
“It’s what we can do to be in solidarity with the students of Virginia Tech,” he told Catholic News Service. Though the two schools are quite different in makeup and locale, he said he was surprised at how many parents had called, seeking his reassurance that the same thing could not happen to their children.
“All I can tell them is we have a disaster plan in place, we’ve tried to prepare,” he said.
Across the country in Utah, Michael K. Young, president of the University of Utah, expressed “deep sorrow and shock at this senseless and horrific act of violence. My deepest condolences go to the entire Virginia Tech community, especially the victims and their families and friends.”
He added that at his school officials would see what they could learn from “this tragic event to aid our ongoing efforts to promote campus safety.”
In Virginia, at Marymount University in Arlington, student body president Jarrett Kealey, a senior from Philadelphia, likened the atmosphere around the small Catholic university to that following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Not only was what happened at Virginia Tech the sole topic of conversation, but “people are going out of their way to be nice, to hold a door and so on,” Kealey said.
Many of Marymount’s students come from the same part of suburban Washington that accounts for about a quarter of Virginia Tech’s enrollment.
“There’s really a lot of connection between us,” Kealey said, noting that some Marymount students likely went to high school with Virginia Tech students.
Marymount held an interfaith prayer service April 17 to pray for victims, their families and friends. The school also put together a “remembrance wall” with large posters on which Marymount students were invited to write thoughts, prayers and condolences. The posters were to be forwarded to Virginia Tech, along with donations for a memorial that were to be collected at Marymount’s spring fair the weekend of April 21-22.
“As I said at the prayer service, we’re 260 miles from Virginia Tech. We’re in two different worlds,” Kealey said. “But not yesterday and not whenever something like this happens.”
The Catholic University of America also made a tribute wall available on its campus. The school in Washington arranged for an eight-hour eucharistic vigil at a campus chapel, where the campus community was invited to offer prayers.
Across town at Georgetown University, an ecumenical interfaith prayer service was held the night of the shootings and another one the following day.
Those three schools, along with dozens of other colleges and universities, also offered counseling help.
Such assistance may well be needed for months afterward, said a spokeswoman for Dawson College in Montreal, where an 18-year-old student was killed and 19 others injured by a gunman in September. A student services spokeswoman said counselors are still working at the campus.
Closer to Virginia Tech, the campus ministry program for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville geared up to offer assistance to their own students. Mike School, a youth minister at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, which serves the university, said the students in Charlottesville feel a great connection to the students in Blacksburg.
“A lot of them grew up in Virginia,” he said. “They have a lot of connections to students there.”
School said the ministry team at St. Thomas was anticipating that reactions would be strong once the names of all the victims are released. About one-third of the students at the University of Virginia are Catholic, and School said he expects many of them will turn to the parish in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile tensions remained high as at least three universities — in Texas, Tennessee and Oklahoma — had bomb threats or security scares April 17 that led to evacuations or lockdowns.
St. Edward’s University, a Catholic school in Austin, Texas, evacuated the campus beginning about 8 a.m. when a threatening note was found in a bathroom. The campus was expected to reopen later in the afternoon after buildings were searched.
The University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and the University of Oklahoma in Norman also had possible threats that were investigated and quickly discounted.