Columbine principal helped rebuild community through Catholic faith

“Mr. De” sat wide awake that night in his brother’s house. He was in disbelief at what had occurred. And, as a cradle Catholic, for the first time in his life, he questioned his faith: “God, how could you let this happen? These poor kids!”

Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High School the year of the shooting, didn’t know that in the wake of such tragedy, God would call him to stay in the very place that had deeply marked him in order to rebuild a hurting community.

In his newly-released book They Call Me “Mr. De,DeAngelis tells the story of Columbine’s heart, resilience and recovery.

He spoke with the Denver Catholic about his faith-filled experience and his new book.

“A lot of this book is about my faith and how it allowed me to recover and to do what I continue to do,” he said.

DeAngelis remembers April 20, 1999, vividly — his third year as principal.

“I was in my office that day getting ready to go to lunch duty… I was talking to a teacher [when] my secretary showed up at the door — I can remember her so vividly — and said, ‘Frank, there is a reported gunfire!’” he recalled.

He was in disbelief.

“This can’t be happening. I’ve been part of this school. It’s a fantastic school [with] a lot of parental support, great kids,” he thought. “And when I ran out of my office, my worst nightmare became a reality: I saw a gunman that was coming towards me, and everything just seemed to slow down.”

Instead of fleeing, he ran toward the gunfire.

“People have asked me, ‘Why would you do that?’ And the reason I did it is that I had some of my kids in danger. They were coming from a class… and they were going to be in the middle of the gunfire. And I ran down there to protect them,” he said.

The former principal found himself leading a group of 25 to 30 students to the gymnasium, where they could lock the doors from within, with the gunman approaching.

He pulled on the gymnasium door — it was locked.

“That’s when I really believe miracles started happening,” DeAngelis recalled.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key ring with about 30 keys, introduced a random key, and opened the door on the first try.

“I tried [to replicate] that for 15 years later, but never could” he said.

But the story was just beginning, and he had to process everything that had happened on that day: the twelve students and teacher that had died, the dozens who were wounded.

“It was two days later that my life changed, and I’m eternally grateful,” DeAngelis said.

Father Ken Leone, who was pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, DeAngelis’ home parish, invited him to a candlelight vigil for the victims. DeAngelis hesitated; he was overwhelmed. Father Leone insisted, and the school principal finally accepted.

“[Father Ken] calls me up on the altar and brings some of the students who were part of the youth group and they came over and extended their hands over me and prayed for me,” he said. “And I felt something, the Holy Spirit, descend upon me. Then Father Ken whispered in my ear, ‘Frank, you should’ve died that day, but God saved you and he’s got a plan: Now you need to rebuild that community… Frank, it’s going to be a tough journey, but you never have to travel that journey alone.’

“And the thing that really turned it around for me is that he said, ‘Frank, you’ve got to believe this: You’ve got to live by faith and not by sight.’”

Father Leone accompanied him in his process of healing and so did Father Sean McGrath, when he became pastor of the parish.

“Their help, along with the help of a [Catholic] counselor, were the reasons why I was able to heal,” he assured. “I got counseling along with spiritual support, and that’s the message I share with communities that experience similar tragedies about having that support system in place.”

DeAngelis would remain the principal of Columbine High School for another 15 years, with the conviction that God had given him the mission to help students and the community heal.

He currently serves as a consultant for safety and emergency management for the Jeffco School District and speaks nationally and internationally.

“Hopefully people don’t have to go through a ‘Columbine,’ but there is an assurance we’re going to go through tough times in our lives,” he concluded. “And the piece of advice that I give is you never have to travel that journey alone.

“For me, the journey was a tough journey, but I knew my faith was so important to me that I had that support and belief that God was there to help me.”

COMING UP: A holy Church begins with you

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A holy Church begins with you

Bishop Rodriguez challenges Catholics to realize their call to holiness

Roxanne King

Even as the Catholic Church deals with the disgrace and shame of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and moves forward with repentance and renewal, it is challenging as faithful not to be disheartened and discouraged.

The answer to this situation is to follow the Scriptural mandate to holiness all Catholic Christians have been given, Denver auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez told attendees of the May 17-19 Aspen Catholic conference titled, “The Encounter: New Life in Jesus Christ.”

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘be holy, because I [am] holy,’” the bishop said, quoting I Peter 1:15-16.

“Holiness,” the bishop asserted, “…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

The annual conference, an initiative of Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Aspen where the event was held, drew people from the Archdiocese of Denver and from outside the state to strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ, deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, renew their spirit in the beauty of Colorado’s high country, and return home equipped to better share their faith.

Despite the current crisis, which is evidence the Church is comprised of sinners, every Sunday when professing the Creed, Catholics say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

“We say publicly that we believe the Catholic Church is holy. Do we mean it?” Bishop Rodriguez mused before affirming: “The Catholic Church, like it or not, will always be holy for three reasons.”

First: “Jesus Christ is the author of holiness and he is the head of the Church. … Jesus is the Church with all of us. The holiness of Jesus fills the whole Church.”

Second: “The Church is the only institution in the world that possesses all the means of sanctification left by Christ for his Church to sanctify its members and to make them holy.”

Third: “There are many, many holy people in the Church, both in heaven and here on earth.”

Holiness…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

Slain STEM School shooting hero Kendrick Castillo is an example of a holy, young Catholic, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“He gave his life for his classmates. If this is not holiness, what is?” the bishop said about the 18-year-old who was killed May 7 when he tackled a teen shooter.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave known for her acts of charity and generosity from her own meager means to others in early Denver, and St. John Paul II, who in emphasizing the universal call to holiness of all Christians beatified and canonized more people than the combined total of his predecessors in the five centuries before him, were among others Bishop Rodriguez mentioned who comprise “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) of those believers who have preceded us into God’s kingdom. Additionally, there are countless “next-door saints,” he said, using a term coined by Pope Francis to describe those unknowns of heroic virtue among our family, friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez said, because the Scriptures say, Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25-26).

“‘The Church is holy because it proceeds from God, who is holy,’” the bishop said, quoting Pope Francis’ Oct. 2, 2013, general audience address. “’It is not holy by our merits; we are not able to make her holy. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who in his love makes the Church holy.’

“The Catholic Church is and will be holy, even though some of her members still need repentance and conversion,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

Holiness is our deepest longing because we were created to be holy, the bishop said. But the only way to realize that call is to submit to God and allow him to transform us, he said, using the scriptural analogy of clay taking shape in a potter’s hands.

“We cannot deserve, produce, gain, create, or make holiness,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Only God in his gratuitousness and infinite love can make a saint of you. … Holiness is pure gift, is grace.”

Catholics believe holiness is real — that grace received through the sacraments, prayer and reading Scripture, infuses and transforms the believer into a new creation, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“Salvation is real,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis [warns] about a heresy that has been in the Church since apostolic times under different appearances — Gnosticism. It is a doctrine of salvation by knowledge, reducing Christianity to doctrine [or] text, to something intellectual.”

In doing so, Gnosticism loses the flesh of the incarnation and reduces Jesus to his message, Bishop Rodriguez said. Likewise, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a major figure of 20th-century biblical studies and liberal Christianity, promoted “demythologizing” the Gospel to attract modern adherents.

As a result, “people lost faith that these things really happened,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “[Bultmann] did tremendous damage to Christianity.”

The Apostles, however, insisted on the truth of Jesus’ incarnational reality, the bishop said, noting the First Letter of St. John proclaims: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you.

Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

“Our Christian faith is not a body of doctrines, not a code of conduct, not an ethical idea, not an elaborated ritual,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “It is not even a community. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is an event. It is a person. It is an event that happens. In the Gospel everything begins with an encounter with Jesus. Have we encountered Jesus?”

Jesus may be encountered through prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“These are three gifts God has given to us to open us to holiness,” he said. “These are the Catholic ways to have a personal encounter with Jesus that is real.”

Regarding prayer: “The best way to start is to become aware of Jesus presence. … prayer [then] becomes a personal encounter, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise.”

Regarding Scripture: “It’s not about information … it’s about God telling his love for me.”

Regarding sacraments: “The sacramental life is God touching me with his holiness.

“In the Catholic Church we believe that Jesus Christ didn’t want us to only have a recorded memory of him as in the Scriptures, but a living presence among us. He said: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’”

I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you.”

Just as Jesus was present with the people of Galilee healing and forgiving them, so he is present with us today through the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“That’s why he instituted the sacraments. Each sacrament is a merciful and sweet touch of Jesus in our lives,” the bishop said. “This is what we mean when we say he makes us holy through the sacraments.”

So why isn’t there more holiness in our lives and more saints in the Church?

“God wants to work with our clay … but to make a saint is a question of love,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Love cannot be imposed, it cannot be mandated.”

Rather, one must cooperate with God’s grace to become the saint God desires.

“Last March, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation on our call to be holy, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “His thesis is that we have been made for happiness, and true happiness and joy only comes from a holy life.”

Holiness doesn’t mean perfection, performing miracles or that we are not tempted, Bishop Rodriguez said. Rather, it means loving God and one’s neighbor by doing the everyday tasks of life with love.

The answer for times of persecution and crisis in the Church has always been the holiness of the people of God, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you,” he challenged.

“This is our response to the Church crisis today: holy Catholic men and women,” he asserted. “We will never give up and we will fight against discouragement and loss of hope. Jesus is with us as he promised.”

Featured image by Roxanne King