By Catholic News Service
BLACKSBURG, Va. (CNS) — Faint strains of “Amazing Grace” floated across the Virginia Tech campus as about 10,000 students, teachers and family members gathered on the Drillfield April 17 for an evening candlelight vigil, ending their second day of grief and mourning for 33 slain students and teachers.
Two hours before the 8 p.m. vigil, several priests joined about 60 Catholic students for a Mass at the Newman Center, where students had drifted in and out all day, looking for a bite to eat or someone to talk to about the multiple murders that have shaken their community.
At a nationally televised convocation earlier that day President George W. Bush and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine were among speakers trying to make sense out of the shooting spree the previous morning in which 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, a senior, killed 32 students and faculty members before taking his own life.
Kaine, a Catholic, called April 16 “the darkest day in the history of this campus” but praised students and faculty for the way they helped one another in the wake of the tragedy.
“Before it was about who was to blame or what could have been done different, it was about how we take care of each other,” he said.
He added that a tragedy like they just experienced can call forth deep emotions, but he drew on scriptural images to say such emotions are acceptable.
He cited the Old Testament story of Job, “afflicted with all kinds of tragedy,” who became so angry that “he argued with God, but he didn’t lose his faith. … It’s OK to be angry.”
He also cited Jesus, crying out from the cross on Calvary, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“Despair is a natural emotion,” he said.
But he urged them as they worked through their thoughts and feelings to hold on to their sense of community.
At the 45-minute evening vigil Zenobia Hikes, the university’s vice president for student affairs, addressed the crowd.
“We are here to grieve,” she said. “But I want America and the world to see this outpouring on the Virginia Tech Drillfield this evening. This is love.”
She called the university a community of strength, pride, scholarship and compassion. “We want the world to know we are Virginia Tech,” she said. “We will recover. We will survive, with your prayers.”
After the speakers finished, there was a call for silence and many plainly were in prayer while others looked up into the sky or over at nearby Norris Hall, the scene of most of the deaths and still cordoned off with police tape.
The long silence ended when a group began the school’s popular chant for its Virginia Tech Hokies sports teams.
“Let’s go!” chanted one part of the crowd.
“Hokies!” responded the others.
After the rousing back-and-forth chant died down, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets broke into “Amazing Grace.”
The vigil concluded with a lone cadet playing “Taps” on a bugle.
While some left after the vigil program ended, thousands stayed on. Many broke into smaller groups that prayed together. Some knelt on the ground in front of the War Memorial Chapel on the northeast end of the Drillfield. Some went up to the police tape around Norris Hall, off the northwest side of the field, and simply gazed silently, meditatively, at the site of the recent horror that had suddenly affected all of their lives.
A group of about 40 students, priests and campus ministers that had come over together from the Newman Center stayed together afterward, praying and singing songs, including “Amazing Grace” and “Lean on Me.”
“It was a very moving experience, said Karen Melendez, Catholic campus minister at Radford University, who has been helping out at the Virginia Tech Newman Center since the tragedy occurred.
Melendez told Catholic News Service by phone April 18 that parishes across the area have been helping out in many ways. While their priests have been coming over daily to minister to students and victims’ families, parishes have brought food into the center every day.
“Tonight it’s lasagna” from St. Jude Parish in Radford, Melendez said, adding that Holy Spirit Parish in Christianburg would be supplying the salad. She said that St. Mary, the only parish in Blacksburg, has been helping in numerous ways.
Teresa Volante, Virginia Tech’s Catholic campus minister, estimated that about 5,000 of the 26,000 students at the university are Catholic.
Melendez said that she and Michael Robison, youth minister at St. Anne Parish in Bristol and campus minister at Virginia Intermont College there, joined more than half a dozen priests in helping Volante meet the counseling and other pastoral needs of the students and their families.
Melendez said that as details about those who were killed emerged, they have learned that 12 of them were Catholic, including a teacher and a student who were members of St. Mary Parish in Blacksburg.
She said the priests have worked out a schedule to assure there would be someone to celebrate Mass at the Newman Center every evening for the rest of the week.
The center also has started planning how to meet long-term post-trauma needs after classes resume April 23 and the university tries to return to more normal life, Melendez said.
Catholic Charities might send a counselor in one day a week over the coming months, she said.
She said that Father William K. Matheny from Sacred Heart Parish in Bluefield, W.Va., had arrived to help and the Diocese of Arlington, which covers the northern part of Virginia, was working on sending several priests to help out after classes resume.
Soren Johnson, Arlington diocesan communications director, said April 18 that the diocesan vocations director, Father Brian Bashista, was traveling down to Virginia Tech that day. He said the diocese’s delegate for clergy, Father John Cregan, had just sent out an alert inviting priests of the diocese to assist at the Newman Center if they are able.