KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When the Sago Mine collapsed in West Virginia earlier this month, one of my first thoughts was about the task facing clergy there.

It’s in life’s disasters, its traumas and shocks, its times of pain and profound sadness that clergy are called to do their hardest work.

I have been on the receiving end of such pastoral care and I have talked with clergy who have been compelled to respond when disasters overwhelmed others. And I agree with the Rev. James Urbanic, a Catholic priest who had to comfort school employees in 2002 after a man fatally shot his own son outside a Catholic school in Liberty, Mo., just north of Kansas City.

“I think presence would be a key thing for me,” he told me. Just being present with people in crisis is as – or more – important than anything you can say. “You know you’re doing the Lord’s work when you listen to the cry, the sadness, the anxiety of other people. And they know you care about them because you’re there.”

Abbot Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey in northern Missouri has come to a similar conclusion from his experience helping his community recover from a shooting there in 2002 that killed two monks and wounded two others.

“Presence was most important,” he told me. “But I would say that a message was also important. The truth of the matter was in those days I knew grace in a way that I had never known it before. I said things that were so deep within me, but they came as God’s gifts. I sometimes stood back and said, ‘Where did that come from?'”

Infants die, car wrecks kill teenagers, airplanes crash, mines explode – these are the times when clergy move to the front lines. Most who have been under that fire say it’s not a time to preach or to offer simplistic answers. Rather, it’s a time to share the hurt, listen and meet the needs of others. Indeed, that’s exactly what the best of them do.

When the 9/11 terrorists killed my nephew and thousands of other people, an associate pastor from our church came to our home simply to be with us. She didn’t suggest that somehow God purposefully had called Karleton home. Nor did she offer the thin gruel that “he’s in a better place.” She did not tell me everything would be fine. She didn’t search through the Bible to explain the questions of theodicy, why there’s evil in God’s good world.

Rather, she sat on the floor in our living room, her back against our couch, and she was present with us in our pain.

When the Liberty shooting occurred, Father Urbanic was attending an ecumenical clergy meeting. After he got a call about what had happened, he and another priest raced back to the school.

“Kids were frightened and everybody was scared and there was a dead body on the front steps, covered,” he said. He spent much of the rest of the day simply talking with faculty and staff, while the other priest was with the kids.

“I’m not sure that I brought a message,” he told me. “I think I brought presence, the presence of the Lord. I think I brought God’s presence in their life, which is there anyway. And then I probably brought church presence, in that order. I did a lot of listening and praying.” And he didn’t try to offer explanations for what happened. He simply said he didn’t know why.

Urbanic and Polan also did something that their faith required of them: They sought to minister not only to the victims and those traumatized by the crimes but also to the perpetrator or related family. Urbanic later went to the jail in Liberty to visit the man arrested (and ultimately convicted) of shooting his son.

“I found a lot of people who weren’t happy with me that I went to the jail,” he told me. But “I wanted him to know that the parish where his children have gone to school cared about him as well. He could not speak well. He was mostly crying.”

The Conception Abbey gunman shot and killed himself at the end of his shooting spree. But Polan told me this: “What I did was to extend myself to his family. They really did not want it. Part of the reason was that they were alienated from their brother. I spoke to his brother twice and invited him to come to Conception or for me to come visit him. But it did not happen.”

Still, he was trying to do what all effective clergy do when mines explode and disaster strikes: offer the gift of presence.

Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to him at: The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or e-mail him at tammeuskcstar.com. Visit Tammeus’ Web log at http://billtammeus.typepad.com.

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