Updated: Capitol Hill pastors reflect on attack on U.S. Capitol that hit close to home
Jan 10, 2021
US & World
(This article has been updated at the end to include quotes from the homily of Father Gary Studniewski, the pastor of St. Peter's Church on Capitol Hill, at a Jan. 10 Mass where he addressed the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol.)
Like people across the country, Father William Gurnee and Father Gary Studniewski watched in horror as a rioting mob stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, attempting to disrupt Congress at it certified the Electoral College vote of President-elect Joe Biden.
But for those two priests, the attack hit close to home, because they serve as pastors of Capitol Hill parishes in Washington, D.C. – with Father Gurnee leading St. Joseph’s Parish on the Northeast side of Capitol Hill, and Father Studniewski leading St. Peter’s Parish on the Southeast side. Members of Congress and Capitol Hill staff members – who had to be rushed to safety during the attack – attend Mass at those two churches, as do Capitol Hill police officers who heroically defended the Capitol building, as do people who live and work in the neighborhood.
And for Father Gurnee, witnessing TV coverage of the attempted insurrection at a building regarded as the shrine of American democracy was especially painful, because before entering the seminary, he worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to the late Rep. Robert Smith of Oregon and attended Mass at St. Joseph’s Church. After being ordained to the priesthood in 2000, Father Gurnee celebrated his first Mass at St. Joseph’s, and since 2017 he has served as pastor there.
“I never thought I’d have the privilege to be pastor here,” said the priest, who in recent years has celebrated annual Gold Masses at St. Joseph’s for people who work on Capitol Hill.
“I revere this Hill,” Father Gurnee said.
In an interview on Jan. 10 before a Mass at the Capitol Hill church, Father Gurnee said that during the attack on the U.S. Capitol, he was receiving texts from parishioners who worked there and were being sheltered in safety as the mob rampaged through the building.
“When I saw people (from the mob) walking brazenly on the floor of the Senate, I was sickened,” said Father Gurnee. The priest said rioters posing for photos in Statuary Hall and with their feet up on a staffer's desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office “was so insulting to our country.”
Rioters rampage through the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 6, 2021, following a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 presidential election. (CNS photo/Ahmed Gaber, Reuters)
Contacted by the Catholic Standard on the day after the attack on the Capitol, Father Gurnee said he was still processing what he had seen and what he should say, adding that parishioners had encouraged him to offer a theological, not a political message, which he said he planned to try to do at Masses that weekend.
Four days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Father Gurnee processed to the altar at St. Joseph’s Church on Capitol Hill, wearing a facemask, as did parishioners abiding by coronavirus safety guidelines who sat at social distances from one another in alternate pews. The 10:30 a.m. Mass there on Jan. 10 was livestreamed for those who could not attend, and the 100 people there included many young adults, and also senior citizens and families with young children.
Father William Gurnee, the pastor of St. Joseph's Parish on Capitol Hill, celebrates Mass there on Jan. 10, 2021. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
The priest and parishioners opened the Mass by praying a special prayer for the Catholic Church’s Year of St. Joseph declared by Pope Francis.
In his homily on that Mass marking the Baptism of the Lord, Father Gurnee noted that “Jesus’s baptism, the baptism the Church continues, gives the gift of the Holy Spirit,” and that people need to keep “focused on what really matters, our eternal salvation.”
The priest said when people take an earthly view over a spiritual outlook, “the results are always ruinous,” and he quoted the words of Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who in reflecting on the aftermath of the Russian Revolution which led to the deaths of millions over the following decades, said, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
Addressing the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Father Gurnee said, “This week, I think we saw the tragic consequences of what happens when individuals and a nation loses its spiritual outlook.”
The priest said he believed that leaders inside and outside the government “cynically manipulated people for their own selfish reasons,” and as a result, many people came to Washington who “thought they were engaging in an historic event to secure freedom and fairness for this country.”
The priest said some carried signs proclaiming their Christian faith, and some in the crowd probably were “veterans of the Right to Life March who had in years past peacefully proclaimed the need to protect the unborn.”
For many years, both St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s parishes have offered hospitality to marchers from across the country participating in the annual March for Life.
In his homily, Father Gurnee noted that those assembled for the Jan. 6 gathering “were told that they should fight, that they should enter into combat and prevent the theft of something given to them by God.” President Trump and other speakers had addressed the rally, charging that the presidential election was stolen from him.
The priest then described what happened next: “A crowd of protesters were incited into a mob, and they were fueled with a rage that told them they were being denied their rights. Instead, they stole the rights of others. Five people died and countless others were trampled or injured.”
“Democracy was assaulted from within, and our elected leaders were temporarily prevented from discharging their duty. Thankfully, the People’s House was restored, and their work finished,” Father Gurnee said.
St. Joseph’s pastor expressed thanks to those “who are serving honorably in government and do the people’s business day in and day out,” and he also thanked those “who protect our freedoms and put their life in harm’s way day in and day out.” And he offered condolences “for those who grieve deaths that did not need to happen.”
Father Gurnee encouraged people to recommit themselves to a spiritual outlook on life, “one which calls us to love our enemies, to forgive those who harm us and to work respectfully and firmly to proclaim the truth, in season and out.”
The Capitol Hill pastor said the parish would be sharing an American novena prayer with the chaplains of the House and Senate that week for distribution, which included the words, “Father of Providence, grant us the courage to extend mercy and respect to those with whom we disagree. Grant us a heart to love this country according to Your will, seeing in every human person a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called ‘our Father.’ We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”
With his voice breaking slightly, Father Gurnee concluded his homily by saying, “May God bless our parish, may God bless our city, and may God bless the United States of America.”
Father William Gurnee gives Communion to a man during the Jan. 10, 2021 Mass at St. Joseph's Church on Capitol Hill. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
At the Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, three petitions were prayed that Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory has asked people to recite at Masses that weekend:
“That the Prince of Peace may grant the gift of His Peace to our country and an end to division, hatred, violence and bigotry in our nation, let us pray to the Lord.
“That Christ Jesus may grant us a smooth and peaceful transition of power in our national, state and local governments; let us pray to the Lord.”
The third petition was a prayer for all the faithful departed, especially those who have died of COVID-19, and for consolation to their families and loved ones who mourn.
A family prays during the Jan. 10, 2021 Mass at St. Joseph's Church on Capitol Hill. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
After the Mass, a Senate aide who was in lockdown for several hours during the siege of the U.S. Capitol said he and his family attend Mass at St. Joseph’s, their home parish, and he appreciated the pastor’s homily.
Asked about his hopes for the future, the Senate aide said, “I hope there’s progress toward unity, but I think we’ve learned it has to be unity based on truth.”
St. Joseph’s Church is located a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, near Senate office buildings now surrounded by fencing with National Guard members standing sentry there and along the fencing surrounding the Capitol.
Father Gary Studniewski, the pastor of St. Peter's Parish on Capitol Hill. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
On Jan. 7, one day after the mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Father Gary Studniewski, the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish on the other side of Capitol Hill, noted that on the day of the attack, he celebrated morning Mass as usual. Knowing that Congress was scheduled to ratify the Electoral College vote that day, the priest said, “We were able to pray for them, to pray for wisdom, to pray for courage, strength and understanding.”
He noted that St. Peter’s Church is located near House of Representatives’ office buildings, and that day, like typical weekday mornings, several House members from both parties attended the Mass.
“That’s how they begin their day,” he said, adding that throughout the day, he had seen a constant stream of protesters walking past the church.
“They were very peaceful. This is what Americans do. They go to demonstrate, to have their voices heard,” the priest said.
Father Studniewski added, “It was a normal day, until all that sickening unrest in the afternoon.”
The priest had gone out that afternoon to get groceries, and returned to find roads closed around the neighborhood, a sign that something had gone wrong. Then a nearby apartment complex had to be evacuated after a suspicious package was found in a building on that block.
“We had a lot of residents come into (St. Peter’s) church as a safe haven,” he said, adding that they kept the church open and brought water to their neighbors who had come there. “I was pleased the church was open and could be a sanctuary to them.”
As he watched television and saw the mayhem unfolding at the U.S. Capitol, Father Studniewski said it was “very disturbing, very disheartening.”
Like his fellow Capitol Hill pastor, Father Studniewski had also served his country before entering the seminary, but in a different way. He had served in the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of captain. After being ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1995, Father Studniewski served as an Army chaplain for many years, achieving the rank of colonel, and in the Sinai Desert in Egypt in 2001, he led a memorial service after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Father Studniewski, who was assigned to lead St. Peter’s in 2017, said he hoped the terrible events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 can lead to “a turning point where people, Red (states), Blue (states), with faith or no faith, people of all stripes and backgrounds, could say, ‘Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again. The spirit we saw yesterday can never take us forward.’”
The Capitol Hill priest said he hoped the nation’s people and its leaders can be guided by a spirit like that which Jesus witnessed to, a spirit of “truth, justice, harmony, charity and peace,” to pursue change nonviolently like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did.
“Any change that’s going to be lasting and meaningful is going to be grounded in that spirit of God,” Father Studniewski said.
In his homily at a Jan. 10 Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, Father Studniewski said, “Disturbing and upsetting images on our beloved Hill this past week of course are indicative of the ills of our society.”
The priest said, “I believe that we have received yet another wake-up call from a very merciful God, since things could have played out much worse.”
Speaking to his congregation in the church and those watching the Mass on livestream, he said, “I believe this can be a hope-filled moment if we can respond with the proper spirit, the spirit within us that moves us to re-evaluation and renewal.”
He added that when people hit rock bottom, they can receive “a new spirit, to live and to act in a new way.”
Father Studniewski then noted, “We have deep-rooted ills and disorders in our society that manifest themselves in violence to people, and to sacred symbols (and to) institutions. Referring to the polarizing ideologies and tactics on display over too many months, culminating in what we saw this week, it has been said, ‘It is not who we are.’
“But I think we have to admit that it has become part of who we are, and isn’t that the first step, to admit that, and once we recognize a sickness, we can pursue a cure,” the priest said. “Once we are finally ready to live differently, we can receive a new spirit to do so.”
The Capitol Hill pastor said the most calamitous event in human history was the fall of Adam and Eve, but God designed a plan to restore human nature with the coming of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit that Christ bestows on people in their Baptism.
“So maybe like that original sin, that calamitous event, something calamitous happened this week in America. Something died,” the priest said. “But as people in the Resurrection, we of all people should believe and expect that something new may be born in our country. That liberty and justice for all that is so elusive, the hope for a new America begins with us, with disciples of Christ who have received a new Spirit that enlightens, guides and empowers (us)…”
The priest emphasized that “the world’s spirit cannot be our spirit… We saw the fruits of the world’s spirit on display at the Capitol this week.”
The fruits of the Holy Spirit, manifest in the life of Jesus include “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” Father Studniewski said. He then asked, “Which spirit is our nation going to choose, which spirit are we going to choose?”
“Every day, we’re deciding which spirit to embrace,” the priest said. “…Whatever passion you are feeling right now, use it for good.”
The Capitol Hill pastor said that day’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is meant to be a hope-filled celebration.
“We will be ambassadors of hope and agents of change in this country and in our Church to the extent that we embrace the spirit of God,” the Capitol Hill pastor said, adding, “It really does begin with us.”