Reflections on the Cockeysville murders

Although I was across the country when the news broke about the Browning family in Cockeysville, I couldn’t help but to try to find out as much information as possible, especially since I was somewhat responsible for nine high school students myself during that time. It was the crime that no one thought could ever happen. It was an event that doesn’t affect our lives here in suburbia. Yet, it happened and how does anyone make sense out of something so heinous.

I am more and more convinced after working with teenagers, that adults really don’t always understand where they are coming from. It is easy for any of us to say that we were their age once; but has the mindset changed? If anything, we can all agree that our society and culture have changed and developed over these past years, sometimes much quicker than we can advance.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a young man here at the retreat house who had told me that he will sometimes treat his parents as if they were dead, because he would rather have it that way. He had told me that he felt so much pressure to succeed on their terms, that he never had the chance to just be a kid.

He, in many ways, was a pressure cooker waiting to explode and didn’t know how to creatively channel that energy. He, and many others that I have talked to, feel that so often they are given responsibilities that are beyond their scope of reasoning, that they have no where to turn.

In two-parent working families or in single-parent families, these “kids” are often given the responsibility of making choices for their younger siblings that should clearly be left to a mature adult. Yet, they aren’t and we are left with no one to blame for tragedies such as that in Cockeysville this month.

Now I know that the immediate reaction of people will be anger that it sounds like I am blaming the parents for this situation. However, that is not necessarily the case. Even that “kid” has to take some responsibility for his actions. We are in a position, though, that we must start asking “why” and not just in this seemingly isolated case, but why are “kids” feeling such pressure? Why does it seem that “kids” can no longer be “kids”? Why does it even seem that I have to put “kids” in quotation marks for fear that someone will take offense, rather than calling them “young people”?

A lot has changed, it seems, since I was a teenager, albeit over 15 years now, but not always necessarily for the better. There was a time when schools were safe, when homes were safe, when it seemed like we lived in a protected world, where war and violence only happened “over there.” Yet, as time passes, it seems to be coming closer and closer to home.

There was a time when the parent was always right. There was a time when you had to believe in God whether you wanted to or not. There was a time when the teacher was right and I was wrong. What ever happened to those days? What ever happened to the days where parents made the choices and decisions for their kids, whether they liked it or not, and that decision stood, no questions asked. It was the right choice. What ever happened to the day when kids didn’t have to prove anything, they can just play; they can just be kids?

My fear is that a revolt is brewing deep down in many young people, not just someone like Nick Browning, but many young people who have walked through the retreat house and cried and prayed in the chapel. It is a revolt that none of us, as adults, will be able to stop, because it is a drive and a passion to be a kid, and nothing more. It is a desire to believe in something that is bigger than us, a belief in God.

We need, as a society, as adults, to give them the bigger picture in life because so many are trapped within the confines of that pressure cooker, and, sadly, one day events like this can become more and more frequent, without anywhere to turn. We need to move beyond a disposable society; to see ourselves as broken, but redeemed at the same time.

No, it is not an easy concept for a kid to understand, nor adults at times, but as adults we should be able to at least begin to grasp the mystery of life and death and then model that for them in return. Kids need to be taught and modeled that life isn’t perfect, that we can’t always get our own way, that it’s OK to be held without being abused, that I can be punished when I am wrong, that I should take responsibility for my actions, that there are consequences for how I act, but at the same time, there is something bigger that exists.

What needs to be taught, and maybe how I see myself as a minister to teenagers, is to say, I understand that there is all this mess in your life, but deep down, it’s not the end of the world, you shouldn’t ignore it, don’t let it fester within, that there is a God and that God loves me and you regardless of anything that any of us can say or do because we believe in a God that is not only merciful but also forgiving. Therein lies a lesson for all of us to learn, adults and kids alike.

Father Martin S. Nocchi is director of the Monsignor O’Dwyer Retreat House in Sparks.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.