Students gather at Bond Hall for a prayer service for Valeria Espinel and Olivia Laura Rojas. Photography by Matt Cashore ’94
One of the first lessons that you learn in the seminary is that ministry to others is not a one-way street. That is, the one who is privileged to minister is also ministered to. The one who gives also receives.
Pope Francis has made famous the phrase “culture of encounter,” which simply means that I have something good to give to the other person, and the other person has something good to give me. Pope Francis has returned to this phrase over and over again in his addresses and in his writings.
This culture of encounter has certainly been the case with me in these days. On a Saturday morning, the Campus Ministry director, Father Pete McCormick, CSC, ’06M.Div., ’15MBA, called to tell me of the deaths of two of our first-year students, Valeria Espinel from Ecuador and Olivia Laura Rojas from Bolivia. Because I speak Spanish, he asked me if I would call the parents and give them this tragic news. He also told me of another student, Eduardo Jose Elias Calderon of the Dominican Republic, who was seriously injured and taken to the hospital.
In less than 24 hours, the parents of Valeria and Olivia and Eduardo were here on campus. I had the great privilege of accompanying them and family members and friends who traveled from Ecuador and Bolivia and the Dominican Republic to be with them. During our week together, they ministered to me as well. I learned so much from them.
I will never forget my first encounter. All the parents had arrived within five minutes of each other from O’Hare airport to Notre Dame. Keough Hall rector Father Brogan Ryan, CSC, ’08, ’10M.Ed., ’18M.Div., and I met the families the lobby of the Morris Inn. The parents recognized each other from the plane trip from Miami to O’Hare. I introduced them to each other.
The parents of one of the girls who had died said to the parents of the boy who was in the hospital, “We are so happy to hear that your son is alive. Ever since Father Joe told us this, we have been praying for your son’s complete recovery.” I had to walk away a bit from the conversation because I was weeping.
I cannot imagine the depth of love that those words come from. Only God can make that kind of love possible. The parents spoke those words with sincerity and with spontaneity. No bitterness, no resentment, no “why my child and not yours?” Just goodness and care.
I wondered if could I find it in me to say those loving and supportive words in a similar situation. I truly don’t know if I could do it. Listening to the exchange between the parents moved me to ask God to deepen my love for others and to take away any sense of resentment in me.
During the week that Valeria and Olivia’s parents were on campus, each family made it a point to go to the home where Eduardo and his family were staying to visit them. Olivia’s family went to visit Eduardo after the Mass of Remembrance in the stadium. Again, I was deeply moved by their generosity and their ability to move beyond their own grief and sorrow to be present for another family and to accompany them in prayer and hope.
What is it about grief and sorrow that can bring out the deepest depths of goodness in us? What is it about tragedy that helps us to know intuitively the right thing to do?
I saw this empathy in our student body. On Saturday, the day that everyone learned of this terrible tragedy, there was a prayer service in front of Bond Hall. Thousands of students came to pray for Olivia and for Valeria. I would guess that less than 5 percent of the students at the prayer service knew them. Nonetheless, our students showed up by the thousands. The procession from Bond Hall to the Grotto is etched in my mind forever. The same is true for the Mass of Remembrance in the stadium on Tuesday night. The depth of love for unknown classmates was obvious at both gatherings.
I stopped by the apartment where Olivia’s family was staying the night before they were to return to Bolivia. While 9:15 p.m. might be late for Americans, I knew that it would be supper time for Latin Americans. When I arrived, the family was just sitting down for some pizza and invited me to join them. We had a wonderful conversation. How can people be so gracious and so welcoming when their hearts are beyond broken and hurt so deeply?
I met up again with Valeria’s parents on the day they were leaving. We said goodbye to each other in the lobby of the Morris Inn, where we had met one week earlier. I started to cry. Valeria’s mom said to me, “We will find a way. We will find a way.” What beautiful and hopeful words.
In rural Mexico, when people say goodbye to one another, they say, Que Dios te de buen camino. May God give you a good path. Such beautiful words. Our faith tells us that God always leads the way for us. Trusting in this, we can find a way.
Meeting the parents and families and friends of Valeria, Olivia and Eduardo was a week of untold grace and blessing for me and, I am sure, for so many others. We set out to minister to them and to serve them. And please God, we did.
We were also served and ministered to by the beauty of these suffering families. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have met and accompanied these wonderful and extraordinary people. I will forever be grateful for the many ways that they accompanied me and many others here at Notre Dame.
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Father Joe Corpora works in Campus Ministry and in the Alliance for Catholic Education, and is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. He has written three books of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God, Being Mercy: The Path to Being Fully Alive and Doing Mercy: A Path to Contemplation, published by Corby Books.