Deacon John Thunblom, 76, rose early on Friday, July 20, and turned on the TV before breakfast, stunned to hear a local news anchor report a mass shooting at the Century 16 Theater a mile from his home.
"Oh, God," he said. "This is a terrible world."
Then he turned off the TV and prayed the Divine Office, a 10-minute morning ritual that felt "more meaningful" that hot, sunny day. The grandfather of four, a retired salesman, has served for 21 years as a deacon at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Aurora, Colo., where a memorial Mass for the shooting victims was led that evening by Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who had been installed as head of the Denver archdiocese two days before. The responsorial psalm, upon the archbishop's request, was Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd."
It was just like Archbishop Aquila, a man of character and compassion, to immediately recognize the victims, Deacon John said. His longtime friend was the spiritual leader their region needed at that moment, who had arrived just in time. "I think it's providence," Deacon John said. "God works in strange ways."
On bended knee, with bowed head, Deacon John brought a heavy heart to the July 20 prayer service. Thirteen years ago his 29-year-old son, Eric, died. "You lose a child," he said, "that's the most traumatic thing that can happen."
From his loss, Deacon John has gained empathy and sensitivity, becoming the one parents request at the funeral Mass of a child. His very presence is a solace: If he is breathing and speaking and walking, if he got through a child's death, so could they.
The Deacon's Message
Deacon John urges those whose children perished at Century 16 to be gentle with themselves. "Don't be ashamed of grief," he said. "You don't have to let it go. It will never go away, but it will become more tolerable."
At every funeral wake, Deacon John makes a point to lead the rosary, a sorrowful offering to the woman who knows their pain, whose only child was tortured on a cross, who wept at His feet and witnessed it all. The Blessed Mother can offer comfort like no one else. "She's the perfect disciple," he said. "She's an icon of looking for peace in the world."
As for Deacon John, he'll be preaching about the shooting throughout the week, remembering Archbishop Aquila's message at Queen of Peace Church. "He gave a very nice homily: We have to see goodness in everything and we have to forgive and pray for the victims."
Seeing goodness came naturally to Jessica Ghawi, one of the shooting's casualties. The 24-year-old redhead lived more fully in the month of July -- truncated, as it was -- than some live in a year. Pictures on her Twitter feed tell the story: donning red lipstick for a costume party, participating in a communal tomato fight, eating breakfast in bed, enjoying a tall glass of dark beer, shopping, painting, breaking her MacBook, adopting a dog listed in a classified ad and flying to Toronto, when she'd paused to admire the view above the clouds and marvel at technology, tweeting to Southwest, "Thanks for the wifi!"
Beneath Jessica's playful demeanor was a sober knowledge, a wisdom beyond her years. "Every second of every day is a gift," she'd written in a recent blog post.
On July 15 she had shared a picture of a brilliant sunset illuminating the water, writing: "I miss home."
Jessica has found her eternal home above the clouds where peace reigns.