‘Nothing Less Than God’s Love Saves the World’: Post-Shooting, Michigan State Catholic Community Comes Together in Faith and Fellowship
MSU students are clinging in hope to their faith, in fellowship with one another, as well as honestly laying bare their anger and trauma.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — A couple dozen students are clustered near the center of the St. John Church sanctuary, kneeling in front of a monstrance for Eucharistic adoration. Some are lined up for confession; soon, they’ll head downstairs to the student center.
This is a monthly gathering of the Catholic community at Michigan State University, centered on Mass, adoration and dinner together. But on this wintry Wednesday, the atmosphere is anything but ordinary.
Located in the heart of downtown East Lansing between a ramen shop and student rentals, the Catholic center beckons those in need after a campus shooting took the lives of three students just two days before. On the path outside St. John Church and Student Center, a sidewalk chalk message invites students in for “Prayers, Community, Food & Coffee, Comfort.” One block south, across Grand River Avenue, offerings of flowers grace the front of the Michigan State University Student Union, where one student was shot and killed on Feb. 13. Berkey Hall, where the shooting began and two other students died, along with five others injured, is a short walk away.
Monday night saw students huddled in dark corners for about three hours — doors barricaded, listening to the police scanner — until the gunman took his own life off campus close to midnight. MSU canceled classes until next Monday, giving students nearly a full week to begin to process their emotions in the aftermath of the horror.
The Catholic community at MSU is no exception, with students both clinging in hope to their faith, in fellowship with one another, as well as honestly laying bare their anger and trauma.
“I think the real work’s going to be done when they stop doing news stories about it,” Father Mike Cassar, a parochial vicar at St. John, told the Register. “What are you going to do the first time you step back in the Student Union?”
Needing Each Other
Late Monday night and into Tuesday morning, Father Gordon Reigle, pastor of the East Lansing Catholic community made up of St. John and St. Thomas Aquinas parish, was among other religious leaders present at the MSU Pavilion, where students and parents were finally able to reunite.
“I don’t think he got back until 3:30, 4:00 in the morning,” recalled Father Cassar. “And then he was up again at 6 to set up [the student center].”
Outside Father Cassar’s office, the gathering space at St. John has a line of tables loaded with snacks, water bottles and hot drinks — to replenish the students who came to the center the day after the shootings. That Tuesday, Feb. 14, St. John acted as an open house. In large part, it welcomed students who had already come to view the parish as their spiritual home on campus, although Father Cassar said he talked to some without much of a faith background who had wandered through the doors looking to process their feelings.
“A lot of what’s happening here is students relying on students, students organizing each other,” he said. On Tuesday, the parish began Eucharistic adoration at 10am, and members of the community trickled in and out to pray until the 8:45 pm Mass. Students led a Divine Mercy Chaplet that afternoon, and many lingered in the gathering space for food and companionship throughout the day.
“It’d be normal conversation, and then it’d drift to, ‘Where were you during the lockdown?’” Father Cassar said, noting a theme in the stories, even among those who weren’t close to the actual shooting locations: I’m usually at the Student Union at that time. I was going to grab a snack, but I decided not to. “These close calls [are] surreal for them to wrestle with.”
The St. John community has become family through organic relationships built over time, he said, making the aftermath of the shooting not unlike other tragedies you’d face as a family — together. The parish had planned an undergraduate retreat months in advance, set for the weekend after the shootings. Not knowing if anyone would want to come, the staff sent out an email, and within hours, 36 students confirmed their attendance and only three said No.
“The impression I get is that, overwhelmingly, what they want and need is each other,” Father Cassar said.
Bringing It All to God
On an individual level, junior Gabby Bagtas, 20, shared how she has been struggling over the past few days, after having spent Monday night in her darkened apartment with her housemate, their phones going off with texts and calls from loved ones. Their concern touched her, Bagtas said. One friend prayed over the phone with them, while another drove to her own parish to pray for Bagtas and her roommate in front of the Eucharist. But that night, her overriding thought was how alone and vulnerable she was.
“I’m thinking, ‘It’s just me and my roommate. There’s no else to protect us,’” she recalled to the Register. They listened to the police scanner, but as it relayed every call that came in, there was no way of knowing what was true: How many shooters were there? What buildings were cleared? Even the official MSU Police Twitter account posted erroneously about gunfire in a third building a mile away: How could it be the same person? Some callers reported the gunman was in the streets surrounding campus, gripping students like Bagtas in heightened fear.
“At one point … they mentioned our road, and my heart just dropped,” she said. “We didn’t know where he was going to go.” When the shelter-in-place order was finally lifted, “I don’t think I got much sleep.” Footsteps from her neighbors upstairs startled her awake.
The next day, she and her boyfriend went out for Valentine’s Day, and Bagtas found herself both blanking out and on high alert towards others’ movements. “Even though I don’t show it, it’s still running through my mind,” she said.
Now home with her parents, she’s focusing on turning the events over in prayer, especially through journaling.
“[It’s] been a lot of questioning,” she said. “Why did this happen?”
Bagtas is part of a charismatic group called University Christian Outreach, which, while ecumenical, has a large share of other Catholic students.
Heavily involved in group activities, from small discipleship groups to evangelistic outreach, Bagtas is quick to profess a personal relationship with God. At the same time, she’s angry at God and is upfront about filling her prayer with that anger.
“Campus is our home,” she said, describing her sense of violation. Her voice cracked: “I’m so scared to go back.”
At St. John’s, Father Cassar would encourage other students to follow her example of bringing those emotions to God.
“Our paradigm is the Psalms,” he said, pointing out their honesty in depicting the range of emotions of the spiritual life. “Don’t run away from those feelings just because you think they’re not Sunday school material: See in them an opportunity for a different kind of union with Christ.”
The Power of Prayer
Within a day of the shootings, the familiar debates began resonating across the state. Most provocatively, Democratic state Rep. Ranjeev Puri, from Canton, released a press release on Tuesday that has since gone viral, with its opening line, “F--- your thoughts and prayers.” The phrase, which has gotten traction online and in popular culture over the past few years, refers to frustrated gun-control advocates’ assertion that their opponents will offer “thoughts and prayers” in response to mass shootings but no action to restrict gun access.
“I understand where they’re coming from, and I don’t even necessarily disagree with the policies,” Father Cassar said. “I’ll let the bishops talk about which gun-control legislation to put in place; they’re wise in this, I think.”
Still, while he might sympathize, he considers the use of the phrase as seemingly indicative of a lack of understanding of faith’s role in many people’s lives, especially during tragedy.
“They don’t quite see this as being somewhat insulting,” Father Cassar said. “To denigrate prayer and turning to God and seeking solace in his never-ending love and understanding can only be spoken by someone who’s never experienced true prayer.”
Outside his office, voices mingle as the community continues to seek comfort in others’ company and common worship. A student waits near his door, hoping to pray with him once he’s free.
“In a world where I can’t count on anything, I’m going to discount this one thing — that God never stops loving me and caring about me? No, you can’t throw that away,” the priest said. “You can’t process [it] without Jesus.”
At the end of that first day, after waking up from the nightmare of Monday night and beginning to search for answers, students were reminded of that love at St. John’s 8:45pm Mass.
Just over 24 hours after the gunman started shooting, Father Peter Ludwig, the parish’s other parochial vicar, gave the homily to the grieving congregation.
“We might not know what we’re doing, but we can know what we need,” Father Ludwig preached in the darkened church. “We know we need the Father’s love. My deepest hope for every single person in this room is not to take away the pain and suffering. I can’t do that. I can’t make this better. But I deeply, deeply hope that, in this Mass, you encounter the Father’s love for you.”
“At the end of all things,” he said, “it is nothing less than God’s love that saves the world.”
This story was updated after posting.