“We’re giving you a world that’s a mess.”
Monsignor Robert Weiss would know.
His ministry for the past 31⁄2 months has been much different than his first 14 years at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn.
Weiss has been hands-on since the first few minutes after the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which sits around the corner from Weiss’ massive church complex.
He hurried to Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Co. upon hearing of the shooting, hoping to offer comfort to the children displaced by a madman.
He stayed for hours, consoling and grieving with parents whose children never made it out of their classroom that cold winter morning. In some cases, he even delivered the news that their first-grader would never be coming home.
Weiss’ work was just beginning in those hours.
He went on to handle services for 10 of the 26 victims of the massacre (eight children and two teachers), hosting both the calling hours and funerals at St. Rose.
And, since then, he’s spent a lot of time talking about choices.
“Evil lasted but a few seconds, and then the goodness started flowing in,” Weiss said March 23 to a congregation gathered at St. Rose for the third and final confirmation ceremony for the parish’s eighth-graders.
My niece, Erin, sat in front of me in her teal dress and way-too-high shoes, listening as her pastor urged her and her contemporaries to make good choices as they begin living their lives as adults in the eyes of the church.
“Which will you choose,” Weiss asked, “good or evil?”
There’s certainly been a lot of good in Sandy Hook and its neighboring Newtown since the morning of Dec. 14.
Erin’s younger sister, Emily, showed off a collection of stuffed animals she received in the weeks after the shooting in her school. Erin said there were so many sent in from around the country, they were piled up in the hallways of the middle school where so many schoolchildren had gone to seek counseling and sessions with therapy dogs.
Someone even sent money for the town to open an arcade for the town’s children.
Despite the kind gestures, it’s impossible to forget the evil of that day.
As we drove back to my brother’s home in Sandy Hook after the ceremony, we passed the house where one of the first-grade victims lived. It’s easy to spot, with candles constantly lit in the windows of what was once the little girl’s bedroom.
Then, just up the street sits Misty Vale Deli, where another of the victims had his last meal on Dec. 14. He’d done what he had so many times before — walked in, headed to the counter and ordered a breakfast sandwich for himself and coffee for his dad.
A trip past the Sandy Hook firehouse, too, will remind you, as you note the 26 copper stars affixed to the roof of the building. At the Jan. 26 ceremony dedicating the first permanent memorial to the shooting victims, Weiss spoke in historic terms.
“People looked to the stars before recorded time as a source of strength, a source of guidance, to show them where to go,” Weiss said, in quotes taken from a story in The News-Times of Danbury, Conn. “Let these stars lay a path for us to follow into the future.”
Weiss’ focus clearly is there in his dealings with the area’s youngsters.
“I love looking at The (Newtown) Bee, because I see you all in it,” Weiss said to the confirmation candidates about an hour before the service began, in describing the town’s weekly newspaper, which has served the area since 1877.
“Whether it’s for theater or sports or for your school work, you make us at St. Rose of Lima proud. And, because so many families belong to St. Rose, we are Newtown.”
Weiss went on to give the youngsters a call to action.
“I’m not naive enough to not know that you all don’t go to church,” he said. “All I can hope is that this will be the event that will bring you and your families back.”
When he was honored at the end of the ceremony with presentation of a gift that had been sent in from New Orleans, Weiss relished the chance to go off script to thank those who had contributed to helping the church fulfill its mission during the darkest days.
Tears flowed soon, as he talked about the Knights of Columbus members who, as he said, “stepped up and were there from the very beginning and provided whatever we needed.”
“They were here every day. They made sure before every funeral mass that there were boxes of tissues in every pew, that there were fresh flowers.”
Weiss has received a lot of attention in the media since Dec. 14, and his focus has remained on the task at hand — leading his town through its most difficult days.
It’s easy to see Newtown and its neighboring Sandy Hook are in good hands.
Yet, as I watched Weiss speak to the teenagers last week, I couldn’t help but think back to my earliest exposure to him — when he celebrated the first communion masses for all three of my nieces.
Toward the end of those masses, the youngsters would march up to the altar and sing “The Butterfly Song.” Weiss stood at the side, encouraging those in the congregation to join in and perform the arm movements, too.
In the days after the shooting, each time Weiss appeared on a news show to discuss the community’s devastating loss, I’d think back to that song, and then remember that some of the little ones who were lost would have been singing that song with Weiss in just over a year.
But now, when I think about Weiss, I fast-forward to the moment when he’ll finally get to gather those angels in heaven for their turn on the altar.
“All around the world, children love to see, different colored caterpillars walking up a tree ...
I’m ready to change. I’m ready to spread my wings to fly, and glorify the garden of our Lord.”