Posted on 07 September 2011.
My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This is the homily that will be preached by Bishop DiMarzio at the Mass of Remembrance for the victims of the 9/11 attacks to be celebrated at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Brooklyn, on Sunday, Sept. 11, at 10:30 a.m.
It was widely reported that as the Twin Towers fell, to those who could flee from the sight, the police shouted, “Don’t look back.” I am not sure of their motivation. Clearly, the police wanted people far from the site of the destruction, but at the same time, there is a deeper message – a message about human memory. A message with which today we must grapple.
As I look to the Bible, I remember the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and how Lot’s family was spared the destruction because he was a just man, and the curious and unexplainable situation of Lot’s wife. The Lord had given them an injunction, “Do not look back,” but she, overcome with curiosity, turns around, views the destruction, and becomes a pillar of salt.
We too, can become immobilized if we look back at the terrible loss of life and destruction that 9/11 meant, especially for us here in New York City, but also around the country. If we look back, we risk becoming victims of this terrible tragedy. We can never forget, but we must use our memory to bring us forward because as Christians, we are people of hope, and hope always looks to the future.
The Word of God today, which is the regular readings for this Sunday, offers us great comfort and challenge. It seems that the readings were made for our Eucharist today. The first reading from the Book of Sirach speaks in Old Testament terms about forgiveness. It tells us, “Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.”
Those words echo the great prayer that Jesus would teach us and His disciples, that if we pray for forgiveness, we must be ready to forgive others. The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most difficult prayer we must recite when we are hurt and find it difficult to forgive, and we have every reason in the world not to forgive the perpetrators of this great tragedy. The Gospel today recounts a parable of Jesus which He enunciates in response to Peter’s question. Peter always becomes the foil for asking the hard questions, and so Peter asked, “How many times must we forgive?” He suggests seven, which in the Hebrew mind is a perfect number. But Jesus goes a step further and He says no, not seven times, but 70 times seven, meaning an infinite number of times. And then He gives the parable of the servant who was forgiven his debt but was unwilling to forgive the debt of a fellow servant. The Master of the parable is clearly the Lord God, and the parable is certainly one we know by heart.
If we were to retell the story of 9/11 in a parable, what could we tell? For those who never experienced it, how can we make them feel the pain and anguish we all felt, especially those who lost loved ones in that terrible conflagration? What is the analogy we can use to bring people closer to understanding the reality of evil and how destructive it is, yet at the same time recognize the indomitable human, especially Christian, spirit that tells us we must never look back but always forward? We must never hold grudges, but always forgive.
However, we must understand what forgiveness is about. Forgiveness does not mean that we absolve the wrong-doer of guilt. Our human experience tells us that when we hold onto our hurts, we become like the people that hurt us. Forgiveness frees us and allows us to obtain forgiveness. The teaching of forgiveness is about being like God Himself, the One who is all merciful. How difficult it is for us to imitate God especially when it comes to unconditional forgiveness. But we know that none of us are free from sin, and the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness helps us to recognize our own faults and failings, asking God for forgiveness, conditioning it on our own willingness to forgive others.
Jesus never urged us to be passive in the face of evil. We must work to protect the innocent. Our country in the last 10 years has tried its best to conquer terrorism and keep it from our shores. Many lives have been sacrificed. Our economy also has suffered because of the wars that are being waged. But these sacrifices, especially human sacrifice, is a response to the evil of terrorism which is almost incomprehensible to the civilized mind.
The Catholic Bishops of the United States, on the first anniversary of 9/11, issued a Pastoral Letter titled, “Living with Faith and Hope.” When they concluded that letter they reminded us that the work of forgiveness involves many aspects and periods; many times for different action. They told us that the weeks and months ahead would first be times of prayer. Would that our churches were filled as they were immediately after 9/11. I know that you never cease to pray for your departed loved ones and for all who suffered this great tragedy.
The bishops told us there was a need for fasting. Fasting means denying ourselves something so that we can offer to God some personal sacrifice that the Lord will be merciful to us.
They told us there was a time and the need for teaching, and for learning what our faith teaches us about war and peace. They told us there was a time for dialogue, to engage in dialogue with Muslims, Jews, and fellow Christians so that we can understand better our common faith, and seek the peace that all religion stands for.
They reminded us that we needed to have a time for witness in our work in our communities so that we would make our democracy better, opening our hearts to all who wish to be peace-loving Americans.
They reminded us finally that the years and weeks ahead must be a time of service especially in the company of those most afflicted, and recognizing that our service must extend beyond the borders of our nation to all those suffering in our broken world.
They reminded us that there is a time for solidarity so that together we can, as a nation and as a world community, stand up and eliminate the threat of violence.
Finally, they reminded us that there is a time for hope. We need to turn to God and to one another in hope. Hope assures us that no matter what challenge life brings our hope is founded in the Lord God who sustains us in every moment and circumstance.
We come together in the Eucharist to pray for those innocent souls who suffered death on 9/11. We commend them to God’s mercy. We are never closer to our faithful departed than when we celebrate the Eucharist. In each Eucharistic prayer we mention the dead. Time and space are suspended because the Living God becomes present to us. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, shares His own flesh and blood to bridge the gap to eternity for our loved ones. We are close to them. They are close to us. We will never forget and as we do look back we are not immobilized but emboldened to take up the work of seeking peace in our lives and in this world.