(OSV News) — When they learned of their 23-year-old son’s murder in March 2022, John and Sharon Echaniz fell to the ground in prayer.
“We hit our knees,” John Echaniz told OSV News. “It was almost indescribable.”
“It was profound sorrow and … a super deep anguish,” his wife, Sharon Echaniz, added.
Michael Echaniz, a teacher at a classical preparatory academy in San Antonio, had been shot to death while leaving his apartment on March 10, 2022. Days later, the killer — Mathew Wiessing, 25, a former colleague — was arrested and charged with the slaying, an ambush motivated by jealousy over Echaniz’s relationship with Wiessing’s ex-girlfriend.
On Jan. 10, John Echaniz stood in a San Antonio courtroom to deliver a victim impact statement at Wiessing’s sentencing hearing, at which Wiessing expressed remorse and a desire to take responsibility prior to the judge’s imposition of a 40-year prison term.
John Echaniz also read a handwritten reflection from his wife, who had remained at the couple’s home in Front Royal, Virginia, due to chemotherapy treatment.
In their respective statements, each parent shared the agony their son’s murder had inflicted, and the raw anger and heartache that had seared their souls.
And they also had a parting wish for their son’s killer.
“As for me, I forgive you for what you’ve done. I earnestly desire for you to be with Michael, my son, in paradise one day. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” John Echaniz said. “Along with justice, I seek God’s mercy for you. And I pray for your heart to be open to the unconditional love of the Almighty.”
“I want you to know, Mathew Wiessing, that despite all this, I forgive you,” wrote Sharon Echaniz. “I wish no evil upon you. I pray you choose to dedicate your life, which is a gift to you, to making amends for the devastation you have caused, and in doing so (to) find peace.”
Now, John and Sharon Echaniz are living out the reality of that offer of forgiveness, relying on their deeply held Catholic faith to implement what John called in his statement “those pesky words near the end” of the Lord’s Prayer — “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“The first thing to say here is that it is not done,” John Echaniz told OSV News. “This is something that I continue to pore over. It’s not a light switch.”
“I think that you immediately know, because of your faith, that it needs to be done,” Sharon Echaniz said. “But humanly speaking … you have to pray … that you can do it, because everything about it … you’re kind of repelled. You want justice. And you’re just like, ‘OK, well, there’s mercy that needs to be involved here. But I want justice.’”
Like grief — the stages of which John traced in his 22-minute courtroom statement, which has become a viral video — forgiveness is a process, the Echanizes told OSV News.
Denial and anger are the first steps, they said.
“My sweet, harmless, schoolteacher son is dead?” John Echaniz said in his statement, holding up a picture of his son Michael tenderly kissing the head of his newborn niece, his hair tousled and his glasses askew.
John Echaniz said his wife’s “deep, painful, sorrowful sobs” and “the howls of my children” that burst forth upon confirmation of Michael’s death echo in his mind to this day.
“You murdered my son in cold blood,” he told Wiessing. “You crushed my whole family with one blow.”
He asked Wiessing what his son’s last words had been, and recounted the laying out of his son at the funeral home.
“I’ll never forget when I saw my son’s dead body for the first time back in Virginia … how the morticians had to patch up the holes you made in his skull and his right hand,” he said, noting, “It made me think of how the Virgin Mary might have felt, beholding her crucified Son.”
“Before you acted on your hatred and despair, I believe you had many opportunities to reflect, to change course, to repent of the evil intended, to cry out for God’s grace to come out of the darkness,” wrote Sharon Echaniz. “You chose not to.”
The Echanizes recalled in their statements the many ways in which Michael — who had just taken what Sharon called “his first ‘real’ job” after graduating from Christendom College in Front Royal — had impacted all those he knew through “acts of kindness, small courtesies and considerations, and a ready willingness to aid and serve.”
Wiessing had deprived countless others of the chance to know and love Michael Echaniz, both parents said.
They pointed to their family’s deeply held Catholic faith, which had led their son to wear a rosary around his wrist as a matter of course.
John Echaniz even held up a rosary in the courtroom, offering it to his son’s killer; he told OSV News that he gave a rosary to another family present at the courthouse for a hearing on their loved one’s murder.
Reciting a daily family rosary with their seven children was a family tradition, with each member invoking their patron saint at the end.
“I’ll never forget ending that first family rosary (after the murder) when we came to St. Michael,” John Echaniz told the courtroom. “I don’t do a whole lot of crying in front of my children, but I sure did then.”
Their longtime spiritual regimen — prayer, Mass, Eucharistic adoration and Scripture study — has been crucial in sustaining them as they navigate life without their son, the Echanizes told OSV News.
Sharon Echaniz concluded her message to Wiessing with two Scripture verses: “O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his mercy endures forever” (Ps 107:1) and “We have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 Jn 5:14).
John Echaniz quoted Luke 15:7 in his address to the court: “Our Lord Jesus … said, ‘I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.’”
The Echanizes said they were grateful for what Sharon described as the “wonderful faith community” of their parish, St. John the Baptist in Front Royal.
“It’s a lot of grace coming your way,” she said.
John Echaniz told OSV News that over the past two years since his son was killed, he has felt as if “somebody had a hand on my back and was keeping me from falling down.”
The couple’s pastor and other priests have “basically encouraged us to take our time” and work through the forgiveness process authentically, he added.
“I know that God, if he knows that that is my goal … will help me get there,” Sharon Echaniz said. “It’s just that faith in God (that says), ‘Yes, I want this and I want to be able to do it. Please help me there; I know I’m not there yet.’”
John Echaniz told OSV News he draws particular strength from St. Cyprian of Carthage’s meditations on the Our Father, extolling it as “the greatest prayer of all time … because Jesus wrote it.”
He said the third-century martyr, whose name was Michael Echaniz’s middle name, “expounds in great depth on each line” of the Lord’s Prayer, shedding light on its most challenging phrase — the call to forgiveness.
In the courtroom, John Echaniz stressed that call to forgiveness was more urgent than ever.
“Anger begets anger. Misery begets more misery; violence begets more violence,” he said in his statement. “That cycle can only stop one person at a time, one heart at a time. And each of us can only start with ourselves.”
Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.