Martyr of Denver? Father speaks of son who laid down his life for friends

John Castillo, father of Kendrick Castillo, addresses an audience at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia Dec. 8, 2019. Kendrick was an 18-year-old senior at the STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado when he lost his life May 7 trying to protect fellow students from a shooter. (CNS photo/Sarah Webb,

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) -- Does heroism equate with saintliness? Perhaps. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for his friends," Jesus explains in John 15:13.

In November at the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Bishops in Baltimore, Metropolitan-Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia suggested there is a need to publicize saintly role models representing the varied ethnicities that make up the United States.

An immediate example he mentioned as a possible candidate for beatification was Kendrick Castillo.

The 18-year-old Castillo was just nearing graduation in May from the charter school he attended in suburban Denver when he confronted an armed fellow student who had stormed into his English classroom intent on massacre.

Although Kendrick was shot and died almost immediately, his quick intervention gave some of his classmates the opportunity to rush in and disarm the killer.

Actually there were two assailants acting together but in different classrooms that day, and while a number of students were injured, Kendrick was the only fatality. Both of the perpetrators are awaiting trial for murder.

Archbishop Gudziak learned of Castillo's heroic act in August while attending the annual convention of the Knights of Columbus in Minneapolis. The young man's parents, John and Maria Castillo, were present as their only child was posthumously enrolled by voice vote into membership of the Knights, an organization he had expected to join shortly after graduation.

John Castillo told the story of his son, how he was raised in the Catholic faith and attended Notre Dame Parish School, where he served on the altar and as a minister of hospitality. He went on to STEM School Highlands Ranch and was looking forward to college.

The young Castillo also was planning to join his father's Knights of Columbus council, Southwest Denver Council 4844, where he often assisted at charitable events.

John and Maria Castillo were invited to Philadelphia Dec. 7-8 by Archbishop Gudziak, who asked them to speak during archeparchy's "sobor," or synod, an event called in advance of the worldwide Ukrainian Catholic sobor in August in Ukraine.

John Castillo talked about his son at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Afterward, he told, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, that he was surprised and pleased by Archbishop Gudziak's support.

"Of course my wife and I brought him up in the Catholic faith, and our son attended Catholic school at our parish, Notre Dame, through eighth grade," he said.

"Our community and the Knights and the fellow members of our church have been very strong," the elder Castillo said. "We have difficult days. I'm not telling you we don't. We miss our son deeply and we still have a lot to deal with.

"There are the court cases for the two perpetrators that committed the murder. I pray a lot; I pray my rosary. When it comes to sacrifice, I believe in my heart he was the best tool to prevent further loss of life," he said.

As father and son, the two were close. Just as Kendrick Castillo participated in his father's Knights of Columbus events, John Castillo attended robotics programs with his son.

Once the topic of school shootings came up in conversation between them, and Kendrick Castillo declared if it happened in his school, he would try to stop it. His father advised him not to. Neither believed such a remote possibility would really happen.

In his own sorrow, John Castillo has special sympathy for Maria, his wife.

"Our grief is very different," he said. "In a mother's role, she put everything into her family. Her job was to make sure our needs were met, and she did it well. It was a different relationship and my heart breaks because I know her devastation is worse than my own. In our situation our faith helps us.

"We will be grieving in some way for the rest of our lives, but Kendrick's sacrifice made it possible for other people to live, to survive that day. By the grace of God he was able to do what he did to save lives. Speaking for myself I cannot be mad at God for what happened."

John Castillo wants justice to be done at trial for the perpetrators of the violence.

"The punishment has to be serious because there has to be a way to make sure the perpetrators have time to reflect on their actions," he said. "There has to be justice and we must speak the truth in all matters."

While he knows people want to discuss gun control, John Castillo doesn't believe that solves the issue. The guns involved in the incident were stolen. People who wish to kill can use many different means including knives and arson among others, he said.

"In our community, we need to raise our children as role models so that they don't wander off into the dark. It is not enough to go to church, to receive Communion and go to confession. We need to walk our faith," he said. "We can't be followers in our society. We have to be strong enough for those who need help and that's what Kendrick did.”