Promise of the future lost amid bullets


Killings on campus are doubly brutal, for something also dies in those who survive, alongside the dead they mourn.

Something of the campus itself dies. Thirty-two beautiful lives have been cut short. And the campus, which ought to be a place of particular beauty, no doubt seems a very cruel place to be.

I heard the numbing news from Virginia Tech yesterday while in the economics department here at Queen’s University, discussing a student who needs a little help to graduate. That’s what April is for — students in the late-night camaraderie of cramming for finals, and their professors trying to clear all obstacles out of the path to convocation. It’s the time of year when students spontaneously talk about moving into the real world, and have an acute sense that the campus is indeed a world of its own.

President George W. Bush spoke about the campus as a “sanctuary,” violated yesterday by a mass murderer. I am not quite sure about that. Not a great deal of what goes on at Virginia Tech or Queen’s or any other university is sacred, even in the broadest sense of the term, and universities are not really refuges either. Modern media and part-time jobs and the pressures of job-seeking have all made the campus a place less set apart than it used to be. But if not a sanctuary it remains a distinct place, a place of possibility and promise.

As the 25,000 students of Virginia Tech made their way yesterday across their 2,500 acre campus, the possibility of success and the promise of the future were alive in their minds. They always are on campus. Not yet weighed down by the shrunken horizon of sad experience, students have a refreshing capacity to believe that the next test, next course, next semester, offers the possibility of success — in learning, in love, in life. The blessing of being on campus long after my undergraduate days are over is to be in the midst of those for whom the possibility of something new, something greater, is always at hand. The promise of what might yet be still shines bright in the eyes of those who have not yet seen too often what is.

There are already plenty of places of horror and hell in the all-too-real world. Something terrible is lost when the campus becomes one of them.

The campus is not so much a sanctuary as a place, just on the edge of the real world, where reality does not bite quite so harshly. Mistakes are not too difficult to correct, embarrassments can be overcome, and new beginnings and new adventures can be had. And even when things go badly, there are professors and counsellors and chaplains at hand to try and make everything right again.

But it is not possible to make a massacre right again. The campus ceases to be a place of promise and becomes a place of horror. For the young ones killed, there can be no greater suffering, save perhaps for their parents who survive them. For the university as whole, there is suddenly an involuntary existential crisis: What is the purpose of the exams and clubs and teams if one day a homicidal maniac comes by and shoots it all to hell? There are already plenty of places of horror and hell in the all-too-real world. Something terrible is lost when the campus becomes one of them.

Every chaplain deals with student deaths, and on even more painful occasions, students who have been killed. Added to the tragedy of a life taken too soon, there is another loss — the permanent scars it leaves on those who survive. Suffering on such a great scale is always destructive, and particularly so in the lives of ones so young and, despite their worldly bravado, so innocent. The gunman of Virginia Tech took more than 32 lives. He took from thousands more students a charmed time, before the near unlimited promise of the future was replaced with the question of a future at all as the bullets flew yesterday.

It has been reported that the killer on campus yesterday was found with part of his face missing, the apparent consequence of a self-inflicted lethal shot. He died then mutilated by his own wickedness, and having ripped away an important part of the soul of Virginia Tech. There are rightfully tears today for those who were killed, and there should be tears for all the others as well, and tears too for the university itself, where the bright possibilities that always enliven campus have been killed by the grim reality of death.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Promise of the future lost amid bullets." National Post, (Canada) April 17, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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