By Joyce Coronel
PHOENIX (CNS) — Clergy, religious and laity jammed into St. Catherine of Sienna Parish in Phoenix for a standing-room-only funeral Mass for Father Kenneth Walker June 16.
The 28-year-old priest was fatally injured June 11 in an attack at a different church, one that stands in the shadows of the state Capitol buildings. A second priest, Father Joseph Terra, 56, was critically injured.
Father Walker died at the hospital, and Father Terra was hospitalized in critical but stable condition. He has since been released from intensive care.
Phoenix police announced hours before the funeral Mass that they had a suspect in custody for the slaying and assault.
Gary Michael Moran, 54, a transient who was released from prison in April, was arrested June 15 at 9 p.m. at a psychiatric treatment center some four miles northwest of Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission, where the two priests served.
Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia said the attack on the two priests was a “horrific crime” and that the department felt an urgency to find the perpetrator.
Father Walker, a priest since 2012, was parochial vicar at Mater Misericordiae. Father Terra, a priest since 1989, was the pastor. Both were ordained for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Garcia, along with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and other city officials, attended the funeral Mass prior to a noon news conference at police headquarters. Garcia noted that the Catholic community had “come together as a family to support each other” in the aftermath of the attack.
“I’m very pleased we were able to make this arrest,” Garcia said. “We wanted to bring closure as quickly as possible in this case.”
Moran has a long history of criminal activity, police say, including arrests for assault, burglary, prohibited possession of a weapon, theft of a vehicle and illegal drugs. He was released from jail in April after serving more than 85 percent of his sentence for burglary and aggravated assault.
The judge set Moran’s bail at $1 million in cash only.
At the time of his arrest, Moran was in a wheelchair, but police do not believe he is wheelchair-bound. According to police, Father Terra and Father Walker did not know Moran.
Garcia said there was no warrant out for Moran’s arrest, but that members of the community came forward via the Silent Witness program and offered information that led to the arrest.
Moran made admissions about the attack on the priests during his interrogation by detectives but ultimately invoked his right to an attorney.
“We believe this was a crime of opportunity,” Garcia said.
Father Terra, police said, heard a noise outside the rectory and opened the door to investigate, only to be attacked. Father Walker heard the melee and came from his room. That’s when the suspect allegedly shot him.
Police say that Father Terra was beaten with an angled iron during the assault and that the gun used in the murder belonged to Father Terra. Moran was able to overpower Father Terra and take the weapon from him.
At the funeral Mass, Father Eric Flood, the North American superior of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, spoke about Father Walker’s love of celebrating Mass.
“If someone were to ask him if he would still want to be priest if he knew he would someday be killed, he would probably say yes,” Father Flood said, “even to say Mass just once.”
He also offered what he said would be Father Walker’s advice to the killer.
“His advice would probably be that he should grow in his friendship with God. Father Walker would say that there was a thief crucified alongside Christ, and our Lord turned to him and said, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise,'” Father Flood said.
Father Terra, despite his severe injuries, was able to attend the Mass where he sat in a wheelchair near the altar. His arms were bandaged and he kept his head lowered throughout the service that was celebrated in Latin. Mass at Mater Misericordiae is celebrated in the extraordinary form, commonly known as the Tridentine rite.
Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted offered his condolences to the community over the loss of Father Walker.
“His two years of being a priest were a blessing to all of us,” Bishop Olmsted said.
He also spoke to the many priests in the congregation.
“We feel a great fraternal love and great closeness to one another as we work together to serve Christ and his church,” Bishop Olmsted said. “We’ve lost a beloved brother.”
Despite the tragic loss, Bishop Olmsted offered words of hope. Jesus, by his resurrection, overcame death, the bishop said. Christ is not only the perfect high priest, he also is the innocent victim, just as Father Walker was an innocent victim of a violent crime.
“He fell asleep in Christ and awaked into the loving arms of his Savior, and with that hope we go forward honoring him and seeking ourselves to be faithful followers of Christ,” Bishop Olmsted said.
At the news conference held at police headquarters, Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski said he believed Father Walker would want the community to come up with a plan to help those recently released from prison to reintegrate into society. Moran was splitting the time since his arrest between living on the streets and in shelters.
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Coronel is interim managing editor at The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Phoenix Diocese.