Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
April 25th, 2007

Preparation vs. Prevention

Reflections on Virginia Tech and the importance of campus ministry


Ever since the Columbine high school massacre in 1999 and the Washington, DC Beltway sniper attacks of 2002, “lockdown” is a word that’s been lifted out of the penitentiary lexicon and dropped into student handbooks across the nation. When shots are heard, go immediately into a protective lockdown mode and await further instructions from authorities.

But how do you lock down a sprawling campus? How do you make hundreds of campus buildings, replete with entrances and exits, safe from armed attackers or hidden bombs? Is there any defense against malice and, if there is, how can you tell if and when it’s coming?

Wondering Why?
It is malice, by the way, that was operative in the Beltway snipings, Columbine killings, and Virginia Tech massacre. There is evil in the world. Malice can find its way into the minds and hearts of persons young or old. Once there, malicious intent can release destructive force. Two high school students killed 12 of their peers and a teacher and wounded 24 at Columbine, before taking their own lives. One gunman killed 32 and then himself at Virginia Tech. The suicide at Virginia Tech ended the search for a perpetrator but shed no light on the motive. We are left to wonder why, as we ponder prevention possibilities on campuses everywhere.

On what would have been an otherwise normal morning at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, a campus community of some 26,000 was neither ready nor able to prevent the largest massacre in the history of American education. But was the campus community unprepared? To ask the same question in another way, was any preparation possible?

The campus community was not necessarily unprepared. Yes, preparation is indeed possible. In the Christian view of life-after-death, preparation for life-through-death is a definite possibility. Indeed it is a necessity for the successful completion of a Christian life.

Be Prepared
Prevention—as opposed to preparation—neither is nor was possible at Virginia Tech. Why? Because there is no defense against malice in our world. But preparation is always possible. There is a preparation for anything in a person whose human will is aligned with the will of God. Preparation for any eventuality is the story of a human life lived in accord with the will of the Creator of that life.

The answer to the question ‘Why does God allow evil to exist?’ is, at its core, a religious one. The job of dealing with that issue falls more directly on the shoulders of campus ministers, not the counseling centers.

That’s why campus ministry is as important as the counseling center on a college campus. Certainly, psychological trauma requires immediate attention, but so does the stress on faith and the strain on spirituality. The answer to the question ‘Why does God allow evil to exist?’ is, at its core, a religious one. The job of dealing with that issue falls more directly on the shoulders of campus ministers, not the counseling centers.

Moreover, the power of faith and religion to ready the human spirit to withstand any assault, physical or psychological, cannot be overestimated. That’s why the Church has to provide this ministry in campus settings that are not Catholic.

Broken Places
Liturgically—especially sacramentally—the believer must be helped to heal in the broken places. Near-campus parishes and on-campus ministry centers provide the space and facilitate the reflection that students need if they are to permit sacramental grace and the interpretative framework provided by the Christian Gospel to work the wonders they are capable of working.

The physical attractiveness and proximity of Catholic ministry facilities to the students is important. The young must be drawn to them during their formative years so that they can reflect on the meaning of life, their purpose in life, and the laws of God within which the good life is to be lived.

Without ministry, we will be permitting our young to sleepwalk, at their peril, through a world of good and evil. Preparation is always possible even where prevention fails.

The Author : William J. Byron, SJ
In addition to being the author of numerous books, William J. Byron, S.J., was president of The Catholic University of America 1982-1992. From 1992-2000 he was the Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Ethics at Georgetown University. He is currently the president of St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia.
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