At a time of holiday celebrations across Maine and the nation, many Americans will enter sanctuaries and church halls this year with heavy hearts — and with questions.

Greeting the faithful will be clergy whose holiday sermons and homilies could come with added weight in the face of grief that continues to reverberate from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“I’ve spent a lot of years, and a lot of Christmases, in the shadow of one tragedy or another,” said the Rev. John McCall, of the First Congregational Church in South Portland.

His sermons are meant to give parishioners a moment to connect with their faith and with the goodness of the human condition — not to provide easy answers.

“I help them ask the question, ‘Where is God in this?’ ” McCall said.

Churches have always stood at the ready to help the faithful understand the complexities of having to carry on after devastation, said Jill Saxby, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches.

Such unifying events, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have only reinforced the duty of clergy, who often write sermons “with the newspaper in one hand and the bible in the other,” Saxby said.

“Sometimes when people have no sense of hope at all, you have to hold the hope for them,” she said.

For parishioners at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, the Sunday homily will detail the story of a visit between Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The two comfort each other despite the impending death of both their sons, said the Rev. Michael Seavey.

Seavey said he scrapped last week’s homily when he read about the shootings, and tried to deliver a message that would help his parish square teachings of God’s benevolence with the utter evil at hand in Connecticut.

For his homily this Sunday, Seavey said he had not decided whether to directly address the shootings as he did last week. But, he said, “the bottom line has got to be hope.”

At the Unity Church of Greater Portland in Windham, the Rev. Pat Bessey will continue to preach the message of love and self-worth. Those lessons, she said, are conspicuously absent in our nation’s treatment of the marginalized and mentally ill, conditions that often play a role in mass shootings.

“We have to do a far greater job of teaching love, teaching forgiveness, teaching compassion,” Bessey said. “I don’t believe that our culture is demonstrating that today.”

Jack Seery, a former Jesuit priest who is now a member of the Windham congregation, said the nation should look to political leaders to reflect in our public policies the inclusive message of caring for the sick and needy that Jesus preached.

“Jesus was articulating a way of peace that was very different,” Seery said. “We try to follow the way of compassion, which means compassion to the mentally ill.”

McCall, who will end a 42-year career preaching this June, said that in moments of apparent evil, the job of preachers and the goal of sermons are to tap into the goodwill and sense of belonging that religious life can bring. They are not moments to search for easy answers, he said.

“Thinking about Newtown, I am very reluctant to try to do anything to make sense out of that or preach about it,” McCall said.

The power of a sermon is born inside the minds of the congregants, he said, leaving them to connect how biblical stories, such as Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, connect to modern life.

Rabbi Jared Saks, of Congregation Bet Ha’Am in South Portland, said he was in the midst of a Friday family service when Adam Lanza killed his mother, 26 students and teachers, and then, himself.

Fearing the effect of mentioning the slaughter in front of young children, he chose to quietly acknowledge the event.

“During our prayer for healing, I mentioned the town of Newtown,” Saks said.

In his theological view, God was present in Newtown in all the acts of heroism perpetrated by staff who acted selflessly to save lives.

“The teacher, Victoria Soto, who protected her children and saved their lives,” Saks said. “God was absolutely present in that moment.” 

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at

mbyrne@mainetoday.com