As the people of Highland Park continue to try to process and heal from the July 4 mass shooting that rocked their community, Immaculate Conception and St. James Parish held a listening session on July 26 where parishioners and the community could speak to a priest or a deacon about their experiences and have the opportunity for the priest or deacon to pray with them. “Our whole community has been offering professional support, and we wanted to also complement it with the additional spiritual part that we have here in our Christian community, our Catholic community,” said Father Hernan Cuevas, who was installed as pastor of the parish just two days before the shooting. A brief prayer service at Immaculate Conception Church opened up the listening session, in which eight priests and four deacons were stationed in chairs around the church and people approached them to talk and pray. “Many, many times during these past two weeks I’ve been having conversations with people asking questions about why does this happen and questions of faith. That pointed to the idea of maybe we needed to offer this opportunity for them to talk to a priest,” Cuevas said. “As we know, as human beings … there are different aspects to us, so we want to enrich the experience from a spiritual perspective, to bring the power of prayer, the healing aspect,” he said. For Cuevas personally, this has been an intense time. The first two days in his role of pastor were filled with joy and events welcoming him to the parish. The third day the shooting happened. “For a pastor to get to know the community it takes a couple of years, right?” he said. “But the fact that our first experience exposed us to a vulnerable situation, that’s when you get to know what somebody looks like. When you are going through crisis then the true self comes out to you. I told my parishioners that it feels for me like we have known each other for years based on the experience we have had together.” Claudia Ennessy was one of at least two dozen parishioners who were with the parish float preparing to enter the Fourth of July parade route. God has sustained her and her husband through the experience, she said. “I feel graced that during this parish transition, as we were with the group that was in the parade in the morning, we used the time to get to know the people from St. James and it was so joyful,” said Ennessy, recalling the morning of the shooting with tears welling in her eyes. “We were all excited. Father came with his basket of treats for the children. It was so special.” When they lined up for the parade and were inching along, they heard shots. They were just one block away from the center part of town, she said. “Everybody came towards us running for their lives with fearful expressions and shielding babies, helping elderly. We were in shock, of course,” Ennessy said. People scattered, and the Ennessys headed back to the Immaculate Conception Church three blocks away. She invited people she saw along the way to seek shelter there, too. “We came back here, and there were about 25 or 30 of us and the first thing Father did was start us with the rosary,” she said. “We were OK, and we just had to pray for those who weren’t.” Since then, she has reflected on the poem “Footprints in the Sand.” “Our Lord has been carrying us because it has opened up a wall of grieving and concern for others,” she said. “We have to accept that this wasn’t necessarily God’s plan, but that God is with us in this and will always be with us.” Cuevas invited Jan Tratnik and her husband, parishioners at his former parish, St. Athanasius in Evanston, to attend the listening session. Following the shooting, Tratnik volunteered for two days in Highland Park and listened to the stories of people who were at the parade. “It’s taken me a while to process the experience,” she said. “I think one of the reasons why I came here is because I haven’t yet had the opportunity to have my conversation with God about this whole experience and what this means to me and how I view those who are affected by it and the type of solace and comfort that they need. So much of it is spiritual.” She also has thought a lot about the perpetrator of the mass shooting. “I think you form an opinion about that person that they could do such an evil deed,” she said. But a comment made by Cuevas in an interview with the Washington Post in the days after the shooting has stayed with her. “Someone had asked him a question about the perpetrator of the crime, and it was a question that implied a judgment, and Father Hernan said that he couldn’t judge this human being,” Tratnik said. “I thought at the time it was a little hard for me to understand. But I have come to understand that this very troubled soul, this very troubled young man is a child of God, as we all are, and desperately needed help.” It has been an epiphany of mercy. “It’s had a really profound spiritual impact on me and [offered] an opportunity to have a different kind of conversation with God than I have on an ongoing basis,” she said.