WASHINGTON (RNS) — Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich has decried the apparent targeting of gays and lesbians in the Orlando nightclub massacre and called for greater efforts on gun control, the first senior U.S. Catholic churchman to identify a likely reason the victims were singled out and raise the controversial issue of access to weapons.
“Our prayers and hearts are with the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando, their families and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters,” Cupich said in a statement issued June 12.
His comments came as details emerged about the early morning attack by a Florida man — a Muslim who pledged loyalty to the extremist Islamic State group — that left 50 dead and more than 50 injured.
It was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history and the worst terror attack since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
“In response to hatred, we are called to sow love. In response to violence, peace. And, in response to intolerance, tolerance,” Cupich said.
Cupich, whose city faces a scourge of gun violence, also raised the issue of gun control.
After Memorial Day, the number of people shot this year in Chicago was at about 1,500 — up more than 50 per cent over last year, according to the Chicago Tribune. Of those, at least 250 had been killed.
The attacker in Orlando, Omar Mateen, 29, who was killed in a shootout at the club with police, recently bought a handgun and an AR-15-style assault rifle, the type of weapon commonly used in mass shootings.
“The people of the Archdiocese of Chicago stand with the victims and their loved ones, and reaffirm our commitment, with Pope Francis, to address the causes of such tragedy, including easy access to deadly weapons,” Cupich said. “We can no longer stand by and do nothing.”
Earlier Sunday, the Vatican released a statement saying that the attack prompted “the deepest feelings of horror and condemnation, of pain and turmoil” in the pope, who called for prayers for the victims and their families.
The Vatican statement added that Francis hopes “that ways may be found, as soon as possible, to effectively identify and contrast the causes of such terrible and absurd violence which so deeply upsets the desire for peace of the American people and of the whole of humanity.”
Cupich has been one of the few U.S. prelates to speak out against gun violence and for gun control, but his mention of the sexual orientation of the victims in the attack at a gay nightclub was unusual as well, as most Catholic Church leaders avoided acknowledging it.
In a letter to the Chicago archdiocesan Gay and Lesbian Outreach, Cupich said: “For you here today and throughout the whole lesbian and gay community, who are particularly touched by the heinous crimes committed in Orlando, motivated by hate, driven perhaps by mental instability and certainly empowered by a culture of violence, know this: The Archdiocese of Chicago stands with you. I stand with you.”
He also urged Americans to “find the courage to face forthrightly the falsehood that weapons of combat belong anywhere in the civilian population.”
Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, said the mass shooting is “a time of sorrow . . . of darkness” but all “walk in the light of solidarity and peace” and must go forward “with the unshakable resolve to change our nation and our world for the better.”
He addressed the gun rights issue: “Our founding parents had no knowledge of assault rifles which are intended to be weapons of mass destruction. . . . It is long past time to ban the sale of assault weapons. . . . If one is truly pro-life, then embrace this issue also and work for the elimination of sales to those who would turn them on innocents.”
Lynch also said that “sadly, it is religion, including our own, which targets, most verbally, and also breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people.”
Many Catholic leaders expressed their grief and horror at the massacre, and called for prayers.
Orlando Bishop John G. Noonan urged people of faith “to turn their hearts and souls” to God and pray for the victims, the families and first responders.
“A sword has pierced the heart of our city,” he said in a statement.
“The healing power of Jesus goes beyond our physical wounds but touches every level of our humanity: physical, emotional, social, spiritual,” he said. “Jesus calls us to remain fervent in our protection of life and human dignity and to pray unceasingly for peace in our world.”
A brief statement from the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, bemoaned the “unspeakable violence,” called for prayers and “ever greater resolve in protecting the life and dignity of every person.”
In Washington, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl said in a post on his blog said that “the love of Jesus Christ will prevail,” and while all too often “it appears it that our civilization is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.”
He said all people of goodwill must stand together “in making another impassioned appeal for peace and security in our communities and throughout the world.”
Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., said that “the ugly horror of hate” in Orlando “casts a chilling shadow from coast to coast.”
“The sweetness of the Sabbath was saddened by the loss of life and the bitter taste of fear. Still, the command to keep holy that day can soothe and save us as we now wrestle with the worries and the wounds left in the wake of such brutality,” he said.
“Hatred blinded the conscience of the perpetrator of these horrible acts, acts no one must be allowed to excuse or justify,” Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski said. “The survival of civilization demands zero tolerance towards such acts of barbarism. Hate-inspired terrorism is still a clear and present danger in our world.”
Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and popular writer, tweeted early Sunday afternoon that while he was not sure about the gunman’s motivations, “church leaders must speak out against hatred and violence directed against LGBT people.”
(With files from Catholic News Service.)