From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

Mark Haas

Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”

 

 

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