The date of September 11 offers us an opportunity to reflect deeply on how we as a Christian community respond to evil in the world, how we forgive, and how we show mercy. Fifteen years ago, the world stopped, and the terror and horror of September 11, 2001, led us into the depths of the mysteries of evil, human suffering, and death on a great scale. Many asked where God was in the midst of such devastation and destruction on September 11. Yet with God's grace we also experienced the height of human sacrifice and the ability of our brothers and sisters to manifest heroic love.
The terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and New York City were not just attacks on the United States of America. In the words of St. John Paul II, "they were crimes against humanity." The victims of these tragedies came from dozens of countries, and the economic and political repercussions have been global. While those responsible for the attacks may have been motivated by opposition to specific American policies, particularly in the Middle East, their underlying agenda appeared to be a deep antagonism toward Western culture and Western institutions. Any simplistic connection between Islam and terrorism must be rejected. September 11th presents a challenge to the Church as well as our government to come to a deeper level of understanding and engagement with Islam.
The "enemy" in a war against terror is difficult to define, we have to be careful to avoid that everyone becomes a potential enemy. We have to avoid the war against terror becoming a war against the other. A society built on fear and mistrust of the other will never be a peaceful society. Only when legality, the rule of law, and peaceful coexistence are re-established will we taste victory.
Religion and terrorism
Despite the message of Jesus and the clear teachings of the Church, many people may still be caught up in the anger and outrage over violent crime, especially over the events of September 11, 2001. Gut-level reactions may still cry out for vengeance, but Jesus' example in the Gospels invites all to develop a new and different attitude toward violence. The Church is called to break down the barriers that divide peoples, to build up relationships of trust, and to foster forgiveness and reconciliation among peoples who have become estranged. As followers of Jesus we must be prophets of justice and peace and always passionate about the suffering of humanity in our times.
The Cross at Ground Zero
Seventeen years ago, we in Canada were in the midst of preparing for World Youth Day 2002 when the tragic events of September 11, and the ensuing Gulf War, erupted on the world scene. I shall never forget the pain, anguish, and uncertainty that September 11 cast upon World Youth Day 2002 in Canada. In the midst of a carefully planned pilgrimage of the World Youth Day Cross throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the cross took a detour in February 2002 on a journey that is not normally part of the World Youth Day preparations in a given country. We had the permission and blessing of Pope John Paul II to take the World Youth Day Cross to Ground Zero in New York City. Our delegation consisted of young delegates from many Canadian dioceses, together with representatives of police, ambulance, and firefighters. We carried the Cross to Ground Zero, to pray for the victims of the great tragedy at the World Trade Center and elsewhere in the United States. This visit was a profound sign of hope to the people of America, and the entire world, who struggled to understand the terror, violence, and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on September 11, 2001. Ours was a defiant act because there in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror, and death, we raised up the wooden Cross - an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol for Christians.
Earlier that morning at a Mass in Manhattan's Church of the Savior near the United Nations, then-Archbishop Renato Martino, the Vatican's Permanent Observer to the UN, told us in his moving homily:
"The sacred scriptures speak to us about sin and the desperate need we all have for conversion. What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: a crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it. Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it... We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes. In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious, and cultural factors emerge. The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region. It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates."
God, bring your peace to our violent world
On the seventeenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, let us repeat the prayer offered by Pope Francis during his historic and moving visit to Ground Zero in New York City on Friday, September 25, 2015. As we pray these words, let us beg the Lord to make us instruments and bearers of his forgiveness and reconciliation to the broken world around us.
Prayer of Pope Francis
Ground Zero, New York
Friday, September 25, 2015
O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and religious traditions,
who gather today on this hallowed ground,
the scene of unspeakable violence and pain.
We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here:
the heroic first-responders: our firefighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women who were victims
of this tragedy simply because their work or service brought them
here on September 11, 2001.
We ask you, in your compassion, to bring healing to those who,
because of their presence here fourteen years ago,
continue to suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.
We are mindful as well of those who suffered death, injury,
and loss on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Our hearts are one with theirs as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.
God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred and who justify killing in the name of religion.
God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared may live
so that the lives lost here may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage to work tirelessly
for a world where true peace and love
reign among nations and in the hearts of all.