Last night Margaret and I proceeded to our St. James Cathedral in downtown Orlando for the interfaith prayer service for the victims of Sunday’s shootings and the community at large. Our Cathedral is located on Orange Avenue, the main north-south street through downtown Orlando. It is at the northern side of downtown; continue through downtown and you will pass the giant Orlando Regional Medical Center and its trauma facilities, and a bit further Pulse, which you have seen on television. From where we were parked I could see the temporary electronic traffic controls diverting cars away from what is still a crime scene. The air above the Cathedral was full of helicopters—presumably both media and law enforcement.
We arrived considerably before the 7 PM starting time, not knowing what the parking situation would be like. But Orange Avenue was open at least as far as the church, and a crew of young Catholic adult volunteers assisted us in parking in the small lot owned by the diocese, though it was my impression that there was a lot of street parking available as well. Several chancery officials greeted us at the door. We saw old friends from throughout the diocese. Given that there was a major memorial just across downtown (the televised candlelight event with about 7,000 persons) I expected that those most emotionally impacted, such as the LGBT community, would attend that service.
It was my sense that our congregation was made up of those who perhaps had not lost an intimate to the hate crime, but who felt nonetheless a need to show a solidarity of faith and concern, as well as to address our interior pain, that global pain that comes from life in a world. I noted the presence of a number of Catholic social justice workers, graying like men of my age and beyond, who have borne the heat of the day’s labors on behalf of God’s underdogs, and who approach twilight years with the realization that much more work remains to be done by those who follow.
The Prayer Vigil itself, hosted by our bishop, John Noonan, and joined by about a dozen representatives of local Christian Churches and one imam, was an affable and positive act of prayer. Consisting of Christian hymns, some in English and some in Spanish, Scripture Readings, the lighting of candles, and the sign of peace. At the closing hymn, the ministerial leaders held hands in a sign of solidarity. Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg embraced the imam standing next to him in nothing less than a bear hug. As Margaret and I progressed through the church toward the door, we stopped to extend the greeting of peace to everyone we encountered, folks we generally did not know. A number of participants wore traditional Muslim garb.
The prayer event was not without its humor. Bishop Noonan was the hosting prelate and wore his simple black suit. He is a true and compassionate peoples’ bishop, but it was hard not to smile as he labored to serve as his own master of ceremonies. In his defense, there is no official church template for interfaith rituals in response to such spontaneous catastrophes. (Sadly, it is probably necessary to promulgate one.) Actually, with just a few hours to prepare, the chancery did a very good job. I also looked in on the cathedral’s monument to episcopal hubris, the stained glass window featuring our previous bishop (now Archbishop of Miami) standing at the foot of the cross with Mary and John, dressed in miter and bearing his crozier. It is a tourist stop right up there with Disney and SeaWorld, except for the poor parking.
As we drove north on U.S. 441 back to Apopka, we reflected in our own way on Peter’s words from the Gospel, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” We both could not sit still in the face of Sunday’s tragedy, and while there are many, many important moral questions about the circumstances and the appropriate responses, my wife and I do not subscribe to the theory expressed by one of my old superiors, that “prayer is the last arrow in our quiver.” We tend to agree with the great theologian Karl Barth who counseling the clergy to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. During Morning Prayer today, I concluded that we must pray the same way.