Dr. Robert Enright presented a talk on forgiveness Oct. 2 at St. William Parish in Waukesha. (Photo by Colleen Jurkiewicz)

Closure may be a nebulous, even elusive, concept, but it seemed to feel a little more real in Waukesha on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 26, when Darrell Brooks was found guilty on all 76 charges brought against him by the State of Wisconsin.

Brooks was the driver of the SUV that tore through barricades and into crowds of participants and attendees at the 58th annual Waukesha Christmas Parade on Nov. 21, 2021. He killed six individuals, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured dozens more.

Dozens of members of the Catholic Community of Waukesha were walking in the parade that day. Nineteen members of the community were injured, including pastor emeritus Fr. Pat Heppe.

“As the Catholic Community of Waukesha and Waukesha Catholic School, we find today’s verdict in finding Darrell Brooks guilty on all counts another step on the road to healing,” read an official statement from the community, which includes the parishes of St. John Neumann, St. William, St. Mary and St. Joseph, as well as Catholic Memorial High School and the Waukesha Catholic School System.

“As we receive this result, we know that God is the source of all justice, love, and mercy,” the statement continued. “St. Paul to the Romans tells us: ‘Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil by good.’ We have experienced this through the outpouring of support from the people and businesses of Waukesha. We appreciate the professionalism, patience and perseverance practiced by Judge Jennifer Dorow and the District Attorney’s office. We thank the members of the jury for their civic duty.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those experiencing the impact of today’s verdict. We continue to pray and support the families and individuals who will spend their lives overcoming the loss of loved ones, innocence and trust. It is within the healing presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we take the next steps. Our faith will carry us forward … as individuals and as a community.”

Taking care of each other

Processing the events of that day has been an ongoing effort for the entire Catholic Community of Waukesha, as they sought to heal in the midst of worldwide attention and a headline-grabbing trial.

In the emotionally charged weeks immediately following the attack, one question emerged at the forefront of everyone’s minds, a clarion call above the traumatized din: “How are we taking care of each other?”

It was a question that would come to define the community’s response to the attack, and a year later it is a credo which carries them through the beginnings of an attempt at healing — emotional, physical and spiritual.

“We were all suffering. We were all impacted,” said Monica Cardenas, director of stewardship and communication for the community. “We were already dealing with our own personal pain on this, but we had to be present for everybody else. We all realized this was going to be a long-term situation that we needed to deal with, and we wanted to make sure that our parishioners felt supported.”

It’s a process that is ongoing. For a long time, the parishes’ human concerns committee hosted monthly meetings with community members affected by the tragedy, and the priests who serve the parishes still mention the parade in homilies. In December 2021, the CCWauk Parade Fund Committee was formed to provide for material needs of victims and their families. The committee eventually raised more than $73,000, money which has been disbursed through approved grants.

The parish has also hosted events to facilitate healing within the community, beginning with a meeting with two paramedics who tended to victims on the night of the parade. “We talked for two hours straight,” said Fr. Heppe. “We talked and cried and prayed, and it was a very touching event. This whole trauma can eat you up inside if you let it.”

The topic of forgiveness has also been an ongoing conversation throughout the parishes in the months since last November, said Fr. Heppe.

“Something we’ve been talking about since the parade is that you have to be open to some type of forgiveness. You don’t have to forgive all at one time,” he said. “I think sometimes when we want to forgive, we imagine the other person is totally off the hook; the other person admits what they (did wrong), and everyone lives happily ever after. That doesn’t happen.”

The community’s focus on forgiveness was made all the more timely by Brooks’ widely publicized trial, where he acted as his own defense counsel. On Oct. 13, Catholic Community of Waukesha pastor Fr. Matthew Widder was called to testify at that trial. His testimony detailed the painful moments before, during and after the attack, the scene at the hospital following the evacuation of the victims, and the medical issues that are still being faced by parishioners who were injured.

On Oct. 2, the community hosted Dr. Robert Enright for a presentation on forgiveness. A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a practicing Catholic, Dr. Enright has devoted his professional life to the scientific study of forgiveness, including the development of a Forgiveness Therapy model.

“When I give talks like this, about 90 percent of the folks who attend don’t understand what forgiveness is,” Dr. Enright said at the well-attended event held in the parish hall of St. William Church.

Dr. Enright spoke of forgiveness as a cleansing agent for “acrimony, unrest and discontent” — more than moving on, more than forgetting, it is a method of “remembering in new ways” that he likened to “heart surgery.”

“Once we’ve been traumatized, we need strong medicine. And the strongest medicine I know under the sun against trauma is forgiveness,” he told the crowd.

But forgiveness does not exist independent of other moral virtues, he reminded them. “When you forgive, you also keep justice on the table. Forgiveness and justice grow up together. We all know about the Christmas parade. The gentleman who engaged in that behavior is behind bars right now and is in court … that’s justice. You can forgive and seek justice at the same time.”

Calling Dr. Enright’s presentation a “mini-retreat” on forgiveness, Fr. Heppe said it reinforced the community’s own Catholic understanding of the virtue.

“As Catholics, we have a big storehouse of experience where we practice forgiveness each and every day,” said Fr. Heppe. “We have Divine Mercy Sunday, we have reconciliation services, we have the sacrament of individual reconciliation where people come to confession — we do this on a regular basis. So I want to say we give it our best to help people understand the importance of forgiveness, to be forgiven, and to forgive others as well.”

“We know that they’re not over it yet,” said Cardenas of the parishioners affected. “It’s something that will affect them for the rest of their life. We’ve felt that in the year following the incident, we needed to communicate that we have not forgotten you, we’re here to help you heal and recognize this has changed lives forever. But it’s through our faith that we can do this.”

“As Catholics, we have an incredible tradition of connecting our sorrows and our pains with Jesus Christ,” said Fr. Heppe. “And when we connect our sorrow and our pain with Jesus Christ, we are able to look at it from a different perspective.”

The City of Waukesha’s 2022 Christmas Parade will be held Sunday, Dec. 4, and the Catholic Community of Waukesha will once again be represented, Cardenas confirmed. The nature and extent of their participation is still being decided, she said, but a committee has been convened to determine the particulars.

What is more certain is the prayer service that will take place on the one-year anniversary of the attack (Monday, Nov. 21) at St. Joseph Parish in downtown Waukesha. It will begin precisely at 4:39 p.m. — the exact moment when Brooks broke through the barricade — with the ringing of the church bells. Several parade participants are expected to share their experiences at the service, Cardenas said.

“We have some beautiful stories of faith that have come out of this,” she said.