Tom Hoopes is Vice President of College Relations and writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He has written for the Register for more than 20 years and was its executive editor for 10. His writing has appeared in First Things’ First Thoughts, National Review Online, Crisis, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside Catholic and Columbia. He has served as press secretary for the Chairman of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee. He and his wife, April, were editorial co-directors of Faith & Family magazine for 5 years. They have nine children.
The Columbine massacre was a horror, but it became a defining moment for the Register and for Catholics. It became the template for how we covered (and reacted to) 9/11. It convinced us that hope was at the heart of the story of our time.
Soon after the April 20, 1999, massacre, everyone heard the story of Cassie Bernall, shot after professing belief in God. Our correspondent attended events at the parishes closest to Columbine and gave us the first report of the “Catholic Cassie”:
Valeen “Schnurr was in the library at Columbine when the heavily armed students entered and opened fire. She was hit by a shotgun blast fired at point-blank range. As her assailant stood over her, she began to pray.
“‘Do you believe in God?’ asked the young man, a member of a neo-Nazi group known as the trench coat mafia.
“Without hesitation, Schnurr replied, ‘Yes, I do.’”
(Later, Valeen’s mother provided more details, including a brief exchange with the gunman and how Valeen saved her own life.)
We reported the stirring words of a youth minister (Jim Beckman) who responded to Columbine this way:
“Kids, teens from Columbine High School, are running to churches,” he continued. “Not just to this church, but churches all over this area. They are running to our churches — are we ready? Are we ready to welcome them?
“We as a Church have got to stand up right now and say there is an answer; there is a hope you can cling to; there is a hope that gives us a reason to go on. Even in the midst of this terrible tragedy, Jesus Christ can give us the reason to carry on.”
It was a turning point not just for the Register, but for the Church in America.
Five years after Pope John Paul II lit a fuse at the 1994 World Youth Day, this second Denver-area event propelled many young Catholics to live their faith with more vigor.
Jody Bottum explained it this way in the August 1999 issue of First Things:
“Cassie Bernall died a death so archetypal, it is almost an adolescent’s fantasy of martyrdom … a sudden rolling of life to a single point and an instantaneous fulfillment of Christ’s promise in Matthew 10:32: ‘Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father.’ …
“But the goodness of Cassie Bernall may do something far more than these small victories over a corrupt popular culture bought by fifteen deaths in Littleton, Colorado. It may deliver a victory in the culture wars so massive that all the narrow policy wars are simply forgotten. To picture her standing there trembling in the school library, with a gun to her head, the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ hanging in the air, is to believe that a change of heart is possible, that God may be loose in America again, that the pendulum may have finally begun its long arc back.”
Ten years later, we still believe that God is loose in America, and that he will surprise us once again.