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The pope is right about the imperative for strong families

Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, center,

Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, center, is escorted from the Sheby Police Department in Shelby, N.C. FBI director James Comey says Roof, the gunman in the Charleston church massacre should not have been allowed to purchase the gun used in the attack, and on July 10 attributed the problem to incomplete and inaccurate paperwork related to an arrest of Roof weeks before the shooting. Credit: AP

In the weeks before Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine black church members at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, he slept on the floor of a trailer that was home to a childhood friend, Joey Meek. Roof apparently revealed enough about his deadly plot to warrant the arrest of Meek last week on a charge of concealing knowledge about a crime.

Why didn't Meek or his family -- his two brothers, his mother and a girlfriend who lived in the trailer -- do something to stop Roof?

A Washington Post reporter who spent hours with the family raised that question in a description of their bleak existence that's as devoid of soul as any I've read. A mother broken by divorce and foreclosure, four able teens and young adults with little to occupy their minds but Xbox violence, cellphone connections, vodka and cigarettes.

Is it surprising that Americans of many faiths and no faith long for inspiration from Pope Francis?

Every institution that regular people build their lives on seems to have deserted the Meeks. A good job, marriage, school, a home of their own.

Roof bedded down in the trailer devoid of books or magazines, getting wasted with a handful of other aimless young people. The thought of someone's fury exploding at a prayer gathering in a close-knit community is devastating -- and a symbol of what we've lost as we spiral into narrowing worlds of self-selected influences and isolation.

Did Roof's sinister talk of doing "something crazy," and showing off his new Glock .45-caliber handgun, simply seem like another way to pass the time for a family that was this troubled?

There doesn't appear to have been anything left in the family's life to provide a nobler vision.

The Meeks' mom, Kim Konzny, left her first marriage when her husband began saying, "No one could ever love you." Her second husband walked out. Small wonder that Joey, 21, finds no need to commit to the 19-year-old girlfriend who lives with his family, where she escaped after running away from home with a heroin addict. Marriage: one institutional failure.

Thursday, the pope described for Congress how "essential the family has been to the building of this country!" Congress rang out with applause. But in the next breath, Pope Francis acknowledged that "the family . . . is threatened, perhaps as never before."

Konzny treasures a photo of her second husband and three boys, posed in pinstripes and polo shirts in front of a fireplace. At the time the photo was taken, the family went to church, and Konzny had a good job as a medical technician. Then her second husband left, she lost her job, and she couldn't afford the mortgage payment. After a foreclosure, the family moved to a rented trailer, and Konzny applied for food stamps. Now she works the overnight shift at a Waffle House. Financial security: another institutional failure.

No wonder Joey dropped out of high school after 10th grade. Where's the payoff for graduating? His younger brother, Jacob, began cutting himself -- a practice of using knives and razors to leave scars as outward signs of inner pain.

The pope Thursday named "the most vulnerable, the young." Many are "disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair," he said. He spoke of "a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future."

As we ponder this and consider how best to recover our nation's soul, I hope we'll keep in mind, as Pope Francis said, our "duty to build bridges." Taking responsibility for each other is how to start.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.