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The priests supporting the families of Orlando victims

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Lucyvette Padro kisses her son Angel Candelario at his wake in Guanica, Puerto Rico, on 16 June 16. Angel was one of the victims of the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. Photo: CNS/Alvin Baez, Reuters
Lucyvette Padro kisses her son Angel Candelario at his wake in Guanica, Puerto Rico, on 16 June 16. Angel was one of the victims of the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. Photo: CNS/Alvin Baez, Reuters

Fr Jorge Torres admits he has shed a lot of tears since 12 June.

The same is true for Fr Miguel Gonzalez, who along with Fr Torres, other Orlando area priests, representatives of Catholic Charities and religious leaders of other faith communities spent hours counselling some of the 49 families who lost a loved one during the nation’s worst mass shooting that occurred during Latin night at Pulse nightclub.

“It all feels so surreal,” Fr Torres said during a break from counselling. Fatigue evident in his voice, Fr Torres, who serves as diocesan vocations director in Orlando, couldn’t readily answer how many families he had met with following the tragedy – perhaps 15, 20 or more.

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Sometimes he would spend hours with a family. Other times he would stop and speak to people in the parking lot of a senior centre designated as a safe haven for families as they awaited news of their children, spouses, friends and parents.

Families waited hours to receive word about whether their loved one was among those killed or injured after a lone gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, opened fire inside the gay nightclub in the early morning hours of 12 June. The shooter died in a gun battle with SWAT team members. Besides the 49 patrons who were killed, another 53 were wounded.

Over several days, Fr Torres offered comfort as families sought news of their loved ones’ fates. He journeyed through stages of grief and preparing funeral arrangements. He shed tears as he witnessed their heartbreak. He said he felt comfortable embracing families and sharing his own sadness, because he saw it as an “encounter of God and faith”.

“When I would pray with families I would begin by saying, ‘Jesus, at the cross you cried out to the Father, “Why have you abandoned me?”’ By saying that, it gave them permission to express all the feelings they had, and we would not judge those feelings and we were going to love them,” he said of the understandable anger and confusion of the reality of losing their loved one in such a violent, senseless way. “(The families) should know that in their heart those emotions do not separate them from God, but bring us closer together. It is part of our humanity.”

But there was a time things became so real and so overwhelming, even under the intense media presence, Fr Torres tried to turn away and have a moment to cry alone. Those honest, raw moments have led Fr Torres to reflect on what might be the next step for the community.

“This is going to lead us to an examination of conscience. As a society how do we help anyone suffering and find a path to prevent this from happening again? Because my biggest concern is when this event is in the rear-view mirror, another might occur,” Fr Torres told the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Orlando diocese. “And for right now, we as a church should examine how we reach out to everyone affected by this tragedy and let them know they are loved and they are always welcome, regardless of their perception of the church.”

Many of the victims’ families are Hispanic, and having Spanish-speaking counsellors available proved crucial. Catholic Charities representatives, deacons and priests, including Fr Torres and Fr Gonzalez, provided such help. Fr Gonzalez said it was a blessing to be able to communicate with family members in their native language. It offered another layer of comfort for them.

Counselling was not a foreign activity for either priest, but the magnitude of the grief and tragedy was.

Fr Gonzalez recalled the personal witness offered during the priest convocation held nine months ago when Bishop John G. Noonan of Orlando invited Mons Robert Weiss, pastor of St Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown, Connecticut, to speak. In December 2012, a mass shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School took the lives of 20 children and six adults.

“Thinking now, his presence was a blessing,” Fr Gonzalez said. “Everything he spoke about, the emotion, the chaos, but also the outpouring of the support from people in the community, is real. There are also the little things he spoke about that bring up the memories of the event, little things like the sirens, ambulances and helicopters. And it’s true. I hear it from my parishioners who live nearby Pulse. All those sights and sounds relive the tragedy and remind us it is not over.”

With the deceased identified, the next step has been to make final arrangements. Fr Gonzalez is pastor of St John Vianney Parish, which is less than two miles from Pulse nightclub. While no funerals have been planned at his parish, pastors of other area Orlando parishes and even south in Davenport have contacted families who lost loved ones. One parish – Holy Cross in south Orlando – will celebrate four funerals for the fallen.

Like Fr Torres, Fr Gonzalez knew it was imperative that families felt free to express all their feelings. Yes, they could express their anger with God. Yes, they could say they were angry at the world. Ultimately dealing with those raw feelings could inspire healing, even when it is a long, arduous journey.

“I don’t know their pain and I don’t dare to say I understand, but I shared the pain I felt when I was a teen and my uncle was assassinated – a victim of a robbery who was stabbed by a young man,” Fr Gonzalez said. “It is amazing when I shared that, all that anger ceased and that person recognised where I was at.”

It was then the priest could try to convey that it is possible to still love God, recognise God’s existence and yet be confused about what happened and why.

“I imagine God, who is real, also weeps for us. That’s why he gave us his Son; to wipe our tears and say, ‘I know your pain and I shower you with mercy’,” Fr Gonzalez said. “This (tragedy) is not God’s plan, but God is here to grieve with us.”’

Related: Turn off news and talk to your kids about tragedy, experts say

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