Story by Lois Rogers, Correspondent
It has been said that as a Catholic funeral speaks to the hearts of those gathered, it also witnesses to the wider world about the hope of life everlasting with Our Lord.
Such was the case recently in the Long Branch area where two families and the community at large were united in profound grief over the unexpected and tragic deaths of four of their members – Steven and Linda Kologi, their 18-year-old daughter, Brittany, and a longtime friend, Mary Ann Schulz.
Adding to the sorrow, it quickly emerged that the Kologis’ 16-year-old son had been charged in the shooting deaths.
There is no doubt the impact of the deaths extended far beyond the immediate area, said Father John Butler, pastor of St. Michael Parish in West End, where the funeral Mass for the Kologis was celebrated Jan. 8.
By way of immediate and far-reaching news coverage, “hundreds, even thousands were affected by the shock, disbelief and sadness of what had happened.” The three Kologi members and Schulz were shot and killed in the family home with a semi-automatic rifle as midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, police say.
Locally, the “sting of these emotions was made even more painful by the holiday context” of the situation. For many, Father Butler said, a saving grace could be found in the actions of the Kologi and Schulz families “responding publicly through faith with the Mass itself and rallying around each other in seeking their own healing by turning to Jesus.”
The greater Long Branch community responded to the tragedy with an outpouring of support for the families. On Jan. 6, more than 200 family members, friends and community leaders attended the funeral Mass for Schulz, which was celebrated by Father Douglas Freer in St. Jerome Church, West Long Branch.
On Jan. 8 in St. Michael Church, about 350 people of all ages attended the Mass for the Kologi family where, as at St. Jerome two days earlier, Christmas decorations added a particularly poignant note.
Participation by the parishes, somber, consoling and redolent of the promises of Christian belief, reflected “Catholicism as we are called to practice it,” Father Butler said.
“It calls for a compassionate, faith-directed response to human needs and suffering – spiritual, emotional and physical. We do the best we can – with the grace of the Sacraments, Scripture and example of Jesus, himself, at work in his ministry, plus our training and experience and prayers to comfort those in need, to bring some degree of peace and consolation and stability to the moment and to initiate and continue the healing process.”
“And of course, simply ‘being there’ and ‘visibility’ are part of the Catholic faith’s way of responsiveness,” Father Butler said. In that regard, he noted that Msgr. Sam Sirianni, rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Robert Bellarmine, Freehold Township, and his brother, Father Anthony Sirianni, pastor of St. Helena Parish, Edison, who grew up in Long Branch and know the Kologi family, concelebrated the Mass with him and Father Mark Nillo, parochial vicar of St. Michael.
Father Freer, pastor of St. Pio of Pietrelcina Parish, Lavallette, and former pastor of St. Jerome, came at the request of the Schulz family to celebrate the Mass for Schulz. A former hospital and hospice chaplain, Father Freer called “funerals one of the most important liturgies we celebrate.”
“They are important not only to the family but the community at large as they try to heal.”
He shared that “the most important thing in dealing with the bereaved is to listen. It is about establishing a relationship, even if just for this difficult time in their life. The connection to, and proclaiming St. Paul’s word’s boldly that nothing can separate us from the love of God is what’s important.”
And in both parishes on the difficult days following the New Year, it was evident that great care had been taken to provide outreach and consolation to the families and friends of the Kologi and Schulz families in their time of immense sorrow. It was clear that, as Father Butler put it, “the parishes and parishioners walked with these families as Mary walked with Jesus on the way to Calvary and just as Jesus walks with us.”