Priest continues to counsel police one year after Capitol insurrection

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Father William Gurnee delivers a homily during Mass at St. Joseph’s Parish on Capitol Hill in Washington Jan. 10, 2021, four days after a mob stormed the nearby U.S. Capitol. CNS photo/Andrew Biraj, Catholic Standard

A year since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Msgr. Salvatore A. Criscuolo continues to see the physical pain and mental stress among officers of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. 

A volunteer chaplain serving the department for 36 years, Msgr. Criscuolo, 72, regularly hits the streets, where he hears from officers who continue to struggle having fought with fellow Americans bent on blocking the peaceful transition of the presidency. 

“Many officers are still not able to get back to work,” he told Catholic News Service. 

Every chance he gets, Msgr. Criscuolo takes to the streets to talk with officers. At times he’ll ride a police motorcycle. Most of the time he seeks out officers on the beat to see how they are doing, whether they were involved in the Capitol riot or not. They talk about family, their careers and their daily struggles. 

Msgr. Criscuolo said he was shaken by the violence as well. 

He recalled being with officers on Pennsylvania Avenue when demonstrators, largely supporters of former President Donald Trump, passed by. 

“Then everything broke loose,” he said. 

The priest told the officers he wanted to join them at the Capitol. But they told him to return to his residence at nearby St. Patrick Church, where he retired as pastor in 2019, so he would be safe. 

At the church, about a mile and a half from the Capitol, Msgr. Criscuolo turned on his police scanner. “You could hear the intensity and the fear of the officers that day,” he said. 

The priest called the events of the day “frightening.” 

“Unless you were there and unless you know them (the officers), you can’t imagine what they experienced. It was a six-hour battle. It was a war against other Americans, which is even more frightening.” 

The next morning, Msgr. Criscuolo returned to the streets to be with the officers. He met with those who were on duty, working 12- to 16-hour shifts. 

“I went out there to talk with them to see how they were doing, to listen to their stories. They were beaten up. More so emotionally, just beaten up. A couple of them actually went to confession the day after, which is not unusual after an event like this,” he said. 

In the year since the violence that postponed, but did not derail, congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s election as the country’s second Catholic president, Msgr. Criscuolo said he has seen a deeper resolve among police officers to put their lives on the line to preserve democracy. 

He planned to be out visiting with officers on the one-year anniversary of the insurrection. “I’ll go to the various districts. I’ll go to talk.” 

The current pastor of St. Joseph Church on Capitol Hill, Father William Gurnee, a former congressional staff member, said the events of that day were disconcerting. The parish is just three blocks northeast of the Capitol. 

“We’re a town used to protests, used to marches, so it doesn’t faze us. But the mood of the country was somewhat on edge and that was reflected on Capitol Hill,” he said. 

The parish always has welcomed congressional staffers – holding different political philosophies – to Mass. Politics has never interfered in the ministries of the parish, Father Gurnee said. 

“We have Democrats. We have Republicans. We have independents. Everybody is welcome at St. Joseph’s. We’re neighbors,” he said. 

Despite holding such sentiments, Father Gurnee said he has noticed a gradual decline in the sense of community in the neighborhood. He is seeing fewer people relocating their families, leading to few encounters outside of the parish – such as at schools where kids would be enrolled or at a local grocery store. 

“They’re not having the opportunity to know each other as people,” he said. 

In response, Father Gurnee tries to connect newcomers in other ways. When someone comes to Mass and introduces himself or herself, he will point out others in a similar situation. “It’s one of my big jobs particularly,” he said. 

More important, he said, is keeping the focus on Jesus and letting people know he and the parish at large are there to support them. 

“As a former congressional staffer, I was taught that these members of Congress have so many people in their face asking for stuff,” Father Gurnee said. “I make it very clear that I’m here to serve them, not to ask for something.” 

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