They were listening to a talk on mercy from Father Ron Rolheiser, preparing for the Jubilee Year that was to begin in just a few days.
Then the news began to trickle in from those checking smart phones, and the mood quickly changed to one of shock and grief. Bishop Gerald Barnes stood and delivered the news: two assailants had burst into a conference room at the Inland Regional Center facility in south San Bernardino with several confirmed dead. The Bishop led the more than 200 clergy present in prayer for the victims, their families and the police called to respond to the attack.
As the hours and days unfolded, the danger and heartbreak of the attack came frighteningly in to focus. A husband and wife driven by Islamic extremism had planned the attack at the Inland Regional Center, killing 14 people and wounding 21 others before fleeing the scene. They were killed, themselves, in a gun battle with police hours later.
The Catholic Church of San Bernardino was faced immediately with the challenge of securing the safety of parishes, schools and the Diocesan Pastoral Center, located in the city. With the attackers at large for several hours, the parishes of the city along with Our Lady of the Assumption School, Holy Rosary Academy and the Pastoral Center were locked down. By three o’clock that afternoon Bishop Barnes had made his first public statement about the attack.
“Our community of San Bernardino has faced great challenges through the years,” he wrote. “Let us come together now in unity to bring light to the darkness of this day.”
Indeed, the focus of the Diocese quickly shifted to the task of ministering to the families of victims – as many as half had direct ties to the Catholic Church (see related story) – and to a shell-shocked community struggling to comprehend that a terrorist attack had happened in their own backyard.
In an emergency meeting with members of the Diocesan Curia the day after the attack Bishop Barnes facilitated a discussion of how it could be addressed in parishes during upcoming weekend Masses. Prayers of the faithful were written to specifically address the attack, and it was also decided that a lengthy Penitential Rite decrying human violence be recited at the beginning of each Mass.
Faith community responds as one
A night after the attack, at the invitation of San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis, Bishop Barnes joined other faith leaders and elected officials at a candlelight vigil at San Manuel Baseball Stadium in San Bernardino. When he addressed the crowd of nearly 5,000 in attendance, the Bishop echoed the evening’s theme of resiliency but also called on the community to be in emotional solidarity with the families of victims.
“Their tears are our tears,” he said. “And we must cry.”
Later, Bishop Barnes read a lamentation in Spanish, the only words spoken at the vigil in that language.
The Catholic Church also played a prominent role in the response of the interfaith community in San Bernardino to the attack. Father Leonard Depasquale, I.M.C., administrator of St. Bernardine Parish, and Father Manny Cardoza, administrator of Our Lady of Hope Parish, met with other members of the San Bernardino Clergy Association on Dec. 3 to organize an event that would unite believers of all kinds in prayer. It was quickly decided that the prayer service would be at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, the very same place that the interfaith community had gathered to pray together after 9/11.
Held on Dec. 7, the Interfaith Prayer Vigil filled the Cathedral beyond capacity. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders sat together in the sanctuary and took turns offering words of consolation and hope.
“Let us be open to where our God, a God of mercy and love, leads us,” Bishop Barnes said in his remarks. “Let us find God calling us to be better neighbors.”
A highlight among the speakers was Dr. Aslam Abdullah, an Imam representing Muslims of the Inland Empire. His fiery address was directed at the two attackers who carried out violence in the name of his faith.
“You wanted us to be hateful to each other, but we come here with love,” Dr. Abdullah said, his voice rising. “You forgot the basic message that your book, the Koran, the scripture tells you. All humanity is one and I am with all.”
Parishes honor their own
As the identities of the victims of the attack began to be known, affected parishes stepped forward in ministry. St. Catherine of Siena in Rialto mourned with the family of parishioner Yvette Velasco, holding an evening Mass in honor of her and the other victims on Dec. 4. Another of the victims, Daniel Kaufman, was said to have grown up in St. Catherine of Siena parish and still attended Mass there on occasion.
“The only thing we know is that we are hurt,” said Father Rogelio Gonzalez, Parochial Vicar at St. Catherine of Siena, during his homily at the Dec. 4 Mass. “And we have families in our community that are directly affected.”
One night later, a prayer vigil at Sacred Heart Church in Rancho Cucamonga originally intended for refugees and victims of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks was instead focused on the victims of the Inland Regional Center attacks. It was especially painful at Sacred Heart because Damian Meins, the husband of parish school principal Trenna Meins, was among those killed. Trenna Meins attended the Dec. 5 vigil and received the prayers and consolation of Bishop Barnes and all in attendance.
Meins had strong ties to Notre Dame High School, of which he was a graduate, and St. Catherine of Alexandria School, where he and Trenna sent their children and where he had recently worked as an art and PE teacher. Both honored his memory with a prayer service and a Rosary, respectively.
His Vigil and Funeral Mass were held at St. Catherine of Alexandria Church in Riverside, where he attended for most of his adult life, on Dec. 10 and 11, respectively. Bishop Barnes presided over the Mass while Father Art Mateo, Parochial Vicar, delivered an impassioned homily. He said the death of Damian Meins and the other 13 victims was not God’s will, but a result of the two attackers choosing a path away from God.
“[God] wills that we have the gift of free will,” Fr. Mateo said. “Many people have used this gift uncharitably, unwisely and violently.
“God can only give us his tears and his understanding. His Son, too, was taken violently.”
Trenna and her daughters, Tina and Tawnya, spoke briefly at the conclusion of the Mass.
“Please always choose love and compassion and kindness,” said Tawnya, who teaches sixth grade at St. Catherine of Alexandria School.