Denver’s Catholic Community Calls on the Faith for Support in Wake of Shootings
Victims include parishioners, whose lives inspired non-Catholics.
AURORA, Colo. — Corey Callahan wept on Tuesday in front of 12 crosses at the memorial for victims of July 20’s massacre in Aurora, Colo.
On one cross was the name of his longtime best friend, 18-year-old A.J. Boik, who is one of at least two devout Catholics who were killed shortly after the 12:01am premiere of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.
Callahan, a Buddhist, said Boik was a gifted and popular high-school baseball player who was known mostly for his uncompromising Catholic faith.
“He was the most faithful person I’ve known,” Callahan said. “Before every meal at school, he would always pray and cross himself.”
The two played baseball together from sixth grade through their graduation from Gateway High School last spring.
“Before and during every game, he would pray,” Callahan said. “He would pray for strength, and he would always pray to bless the other team.”
Boik was a member of Aurora’s Queen of Peace Catholic Church.
Alex Sullivan, whose father is shown breaking down near the Century 16 theater in a now-famous photo, was a member of Aurora’s St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church. Alex died celebrating the dawn of his 27th birthday, and his first wedding anniversary was two days away.
Another member of Queen of Peace was shot and critically injured, but Father Martin Lally, the pastor, said family members do not want his name disclosed at this time.
“He is badly injured,” Father Lally said. “I visited him yesterday. He was not able to speak, but he did recognize me.”
Father Lally said the shooting has unified Catholics in Aurora and throughout metropolitan Denver.
“People are more attentive to prayer, and they are asking God for help,” Father Lally said. “The agenda for all seems to be drawing into a closer relationship with God. The Gospel constantly points to Jesus being with people at times of difficulty.”
Several teenagers from Queen of Peace, a 7,000-family parish, were in the theater and witnessed the carnage.
“We have been reaching out and trying to contact them,” Father Lally said. “A lot of the teenagers are still in shock. They still can’t believe it. One of our deacons gave a homily that explained how God allows evil but always makes good out of it. At our youth Mass on Sunday, we were seeing teens weeping and putting their arms around each other, coming closer together.”
Father Lally said Boik was a popular parishioner who had recently been accepted into an art school. He planned to become an art teacher. President Barack Obama met personally with Boik’s grandparents after the shooting.
A few miles away, fellow parishioners grieved the loss of Sullivan as his funeral plans got under way.
“He was baptized Catholic, and then came back, on his own, as a non-catechized adult for RCIA,” said Jim Peters, director of religious education for St. Michael’s.
Peters, Father Terry Kissell and some of the staff and deacons at St. Michael’s came to know Sullivan personally. Peters said Sullivan was an “on-fire Catholic” who remained active in the RCIA community and participated in other religious-education events. He spoke unceasingly about strengthening his faith.
“He was a big movie buff, so I wasn’t surprised he was at that premiere,” Peters said. “He had this ability to find God in all things. Whatever movie he had seen, he would come back and tell us what a Catholic could take from it and why.
“He also loved sports. He would go to Mass, and then it was off to flag football or some other sporting event he was participating in.”
Peters said he learned about the death of his friend after an RCIA team member saw it on the news and called him as he was falling asleep the night of July 20.
“Sunday Mass was difficult for a lot of us here,” Peters said. “There were a lot of tears.”
Peters said he remained in denial of Sullivan’s death until he saw his friend’s picture in a newspaper that someone had brought to Sunday Mass.
“I was not attentive at Mass,” Peters said. “It was really sinking in at that point.”
Typically, Peters and RCIA volunteers witness to and support confirmandi.
“This week, they are ministering to us,” Peters said. “They are holding us up in our grief. It’s a bit of a reversal.”
Father Lally of Queen of Peace said he and other Catholic priests and deacons are not ministering and praying only for Catholics in the wake of the shooting spree. As in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, Catholic parishes throughout the metro area have become places of gathering and healing for the general public.
On the night of July 20, following the massacre of that morning, Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, installed just two days prior, offered a Mass for all affected by the shootings and explained that “sin, evil and death do not have the last word.”
“Certainly, the love of the Father is stronger than the bullets,” Archbishop Aquila said.
Denver auxiliary Bishop James Conley plans to preside over funeral masses for Boik and Sullivan.
Callahan, Boik’s Buddhist friend, said Boik’s Catholic faith has always inspired and uplifted him — even more so in his friend’s death.
“He was always just so filled with joy that no one could ever be mad at him,” Callahan said. “Everyone liked him. There will be no bad memories of him. I think he’s in heaven right now, looking down on us and smiling, wanting us to not be mad about this.”
Callahan planned to attend the premiere with Boik and a few other friends, but decided not to.
“I didn’t go because I had this bad feeling about it. I had this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach that something bad was going to happen,” Callahan said, sobbing next to his friend’s memorial cross.
“So I stayed home. I just wish A.J. had stayed home.”
Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.