“The agony of an existence without meaning is unbearable.” This is the first thing that Fr. Vincent Nagle, a priest of the Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, had to say in front of the terrible massacre in Uvalde. In the Texas city of 16,000 inhabitants, a young man, who had just turned 18, burst into Robb Elementary School and massacred 19 children and two teachers before being killed by the police.
“Guns are not the cause of these tragedies”
Fr. Vincent lives in Milan and works as chaplain at the Maddalena Grassi Foundation, but was born in 1958 in San Francisco, where he graduated in sociology and classics before being ordained a priest in Rome in 1992. He did not want to talk first of all about guns, the center of the debate after every shooting in the United States. And his words don’t come from his degree but from his experience.
“I grew up in the country,” he recalls, “and I remember that there wasn’t a family without guns in the house. I started shooting at 10 years old, and these massacres didn’t happen. What’s more, no one could so much as imagine them. Of course we can talk about regulations and bans, but let’s not kid ourselves: the cause of these tragedies is not guns. This is a talking point which is brought up solely to avoid speaking of the real problem: the drama of young men that live lives without meaning, without history, without a belonging.”
“A life without meaning is unbearable”
From his youth, continues Fr. Vincent, “I, too, was an angry and violent boy, as my brother reminded me about 15 years ago. And the reason for my anger was that I felt useless: my existence was not headed anywhere and I would have done anything to be a protagonist of something. But I didn’t belong to anything, my life didn’t have meaning and, consequently, it seemed to me that the lives of others had no meaning either. I even asked myself if they were real people or only robots.”
“Maybe,” he continues, “I wouldn’t have carried out a shooting like the one in Uvalde, but we don’t realize that the agony of a life without meaning is unbearable. And one thing is for sure: one who carries out such a heinous crime will be remembered for a long time. It’s not for nothing that some news outlets in the United States have in the past few years stopped publishing the names and photos of the shooters, because they know that many do it to become famous.”
Antidepressants and the absence of fathers
It’s not a distraction but an attempt to understand the impossible: what could have pushed this young man, and many others before him, to carry out such an atrocious act? “I’m not a scientist,” says the missionary, “but one thing I can see: all of these massacres are carried out by young men without a father figure and under the effect of antidepressants. We always talk about guns, but what effect did the absence of a father and the taking of so much medicine have on these kids?”
After having left America to teach English in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, Fr. Vincent returned to the U.S. as chaplain of a hospital in New England from 1994 to 2004. And in that time he became aware of another enormous unease among young Americans: “Speaking with them, I realized that at school they weren’t learning history anymore. The only things taught in class about their country and their people were their crimes and the mistakes made: racism, colonialism, imperialism.”
Cancel culture didn’t start yesterday
Today, cancel culture is on everyone’s lips, but “already, 30 years ago, they were teaching kids that their country and the world that they inherited was worthless and had to be remade. They didn’t pass on the long history of a country and a people that fought, despite many errors, to affirm the goodness of freedom and life. They didn’t pass on a meaning, a history, a belonging, a destiny. Nothing. Only negations. And this can’t but be one factor among many that push these youths to carry out terrible massacres.”
Fr. Vincent was also a young, angry American, disappointed by a life apparently without meaning, and what changed him was, he explains, “the grace of God, that touched me and made me understand that I belonged to a meaningful history, that I had an identity, a destiny, that my life was willed and not accidental, and that everything mysteriously had a meaning.”
The story of God’s grace
That’s what he told a group of American elementary school teachers in 1996, when the whole world read in horror of the massacre in Dunblane, a town in Scotland, where a young man massacred 16 children and a teacher before killing himself. “I remember that everyone was afraid, depressed, incredulous. How could one stay in front of something so terrible, horrible, inhuman, violent?”: the same reactions that everyone had in front of the shooting in Uvalde.
“The only thing I could think to say then, as well as now, is that even in a mysterious way, God has something to do with this tragedy. Not because He willed it or is evil, but because everything, even that which seems completely lost and senseless, has a meaning and enters into the story of grace that’s made up of an infinite number of threads, including our lives. If we don’t affirm this, if we don’t understand that even in these tragedies God waits for us to give us His love and His forgiveness, nothing is left but censoring and escaping from reality.”
And it is precisely by this story that “a young man like the Uvalde shooter and like many other young Americans, does not feel himself touched, and now nothing exists, nothing links you to reality and to others, whose existences lose meaning.”
Before talking about guns or regulations, it is this emptiness that needs to be confronted, and the existence of this history that needs to be rediscovered.