Training prepares dioceses for terrorism, mass shootings, other disasters

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When tragedy arrives in a city, town or parish, there are several things church members, staff, priests, and religious sisters and brothers can do to help and others they shouldn't do.

To help distinguish, a Washington-based priest and psychologist is conducting a free webinar at the end of August to prepare priests, religious and other church members to deal with the trauma that follows a natural disaster, an act of terrorism or any other large-scale tragedy that they and the communities they serve might face.

"Just because you're a priest or a (religious) sister or a brother does not mean you have the training to deal with these large-scale disasters," said Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, who is conducting the free Aug. 31 online webinar "Shepherding in Tragic Times: Caring for Self and Others in Trauma" via the St. Luke Institute in Maryland.

Rossetti, a licensed psychologist, first dealt with large-scale tragedies after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 and he was dispatched to help priests in Biloxi, Miss.

Since then, Rossetti, past president of St. Luke Institute, has seen a way to apply lessons he learned in Biloxi to other experiences that bring about mass pain and trauma that may affect parishes and their communities. He will discuss some of these during the webinar aimed at priests and religious, but available to anyone who wants to register at

Preparing for chaos, grief

In September 2015, Rossetti took some of those lessons to a training for priests in Florida, which Fr. Miguel Gonzalez, pastor of St. John Vianney Catholic Church and vicar for priests for the Orlando diocese, attended.

"Thank God for the timing" of the presentation, said Gonzalez, who received an urgent phone call in June to help with Spanish-speaking families after a nightclub shooting in Orlando left 49 dead and more than 50 injured.

Because of the training, he had prepared himself mentally and spiritually for the chaos, the media swarm, the depth of the grief he witnessed, and even his reaction. He knew that instead of finding the right words, it was more important to be near those waiting to be told whether their relatives were alive, to let them know they weren't alone.

He knew small gestures, such as fetching water for those who were in shock and grief, were important, and to allow those who were suffering to question God and be angry. He even knew he had to find moments to "decompress" and take a step back from the situation so that he could continue helping.

"What I learned (from the training) definitely clicked," he said. "We were in a better place to meet needs but not disconnect from our needs," Gonzalez said during a phone interview with Catholic News Service.

Preparing for tragedy begins by recognizing that it can happen anywhere at any time, Rossetti said.

"It'd be foolish for us to think that it's not going to happen to us. Look at the number of dioceses (in the U.S.) in the last year that have been directly affected by terrorism and tragedies. I think every diocese, every order, should have, not only training, but also a plan," he said.

Rossetti added each diocese should ask the question: "What are we going to do if downtown in our city a hundred people are shot and killed? Who's going to do what?"

"When a disaster hits, you don't want to have to say 'oh, my gosh, what do I do now?' That feeling of being unprepared, it feeds into that helplessness, that feeling of victimization," he said. "That's the last thing we want because it makes it worse. You want to walk with the feeling that you have some tools behind you."

Respect for the mourning process

Each diocese should make plans for a variety of possible scenarios. Aside from helping with the immediate physical and emotional needs of a community, church members can help by organizing and taking part in rituals that heal such as praying, burying the dead, anointing the sick and memorializing, Rossetti said.

While these rites mostly help, also recognize that, for some, those acts "can also be painful," said Rossetti. "Memorials and prayers are good ... but just remember that sometimes people can't do it yet."

He also advises doing drills, practicing what each person will do once a plan is in place. He stressed the need for seeking support from others, reaching out to those who need support or seeking support from others.

Those undergoing tragedy can become actively "involved and taking control, if you will ... we can say, we can't fix it, but we can provide some help."

Priests and religious need to know how to spot people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. Some of these situations may mean dealing with people's anger and frustration, terror and sometimes faith.

"We need to encourage people to go through that faith journey," Rossetti said. "If you need to get angry at God, if you need to question why, then do that. Bring it to prayer."

In the midst of tragedy, questioning one's faith can happen to anyone, he said, adding that "it happens to priests as well ... it can really strongly affect your faith, and getting angry at God, questioning God's providence, all those things" are normal.

He cautions, however, against urging others to get over it. "You don't get over these sorts of things. You move through it and you can become stronger."

It can take a few months of struggling with feelings of anxiety, fear and trauma, he said, and most people will move through the pain and trauma, but some people are not able to do it and some are not able to recover as quickly. Everyone is different.

Terror a special type of trauma

It also depends on the type of trauma the person has experienced. While a natural disaster can be devastating, it causes a different type of trauma than an act of terror done intentionally. That carries an extra level of terror, he said.

"We should be aware that these (acts of terrorism) require a special kind of diligence and care," Rossetti said.

However, in some cases, in the wake of trauma, "most people actually become stronger, despite their wound, the pain, they move through it. Their whole emotional and spiritual life changes, and they feel a sense of empowerment. And this is not to say these things are good. They're awful. But the resilience of the human spirit comes out."

Gonzalez said it helped to hear what to expect from those who had been through it, such as Msgr. Robert Weiss of Newtown, Conn., who shared the experience of dealing with tragedy after he had to tell families their children had been shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Sadly, it has become necessary to understand mass tragedy "in light of the things we're witnessing in the world," Gonzalez said.

"People understand natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, that sort of thing, but when it's done by people intentionally, it carries an extra level of terror," Rossetti said. "You're being faced with such evil, a devastating evil, it leaves a mark on people."

"The church should not underestimate the importance of its ministry ... of our faith and our church community at times like these in terms of what it does for people," Rossetti said.

Believers, Gonzalez said, have to be strong in faith and "not respond with vengeance, not respond with hatred because that's what makes us precisely like them. If you want to talk about it in terms of good and evil, this is what the devil tries to do: tries to make us like himself -- full of rage, hatred."

We can instead study and prepare the truly Christian response, Rossetti said. Faith leaders can consider, for example, the response of those in Charleston, S.C. When a shooter killed nine of their members during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, family members of those killed showed up to the killer's bond hearing to forgive him and tell him they were praying for his soul.

"They said, 'We forgive you,' even though they were devastated, those wonderful people of faith," said Rossetti. "They defeated evil by the power of goodness."

Unfortunately, there's no reason to think that these tragedies will stop, said Rossetti.

"We have every reason to think that it's going to get worse. So, let's get prepared," he added.

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