My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
As we arrive at the 20th anniversary of September 11th, the terrible terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York, the Pentagon right outside Washington, D.C., in Shanksville, Pa., and, in fact, all of our Nation, we recall the lingering pains of those horrific events. The fact is, we never will forget, nor never can we forget what happened on that day. This is because, like never before, this attack brought us to understand the conflict between good and evil in our world.
Recently, we have seen the pain that natural disasters cause, such as Hurricane Ida in Louisiana and Mississippi and the unprecedented flooding in New York and New Jersey left in her wake, floods in Tennessee and the earthquake in Haiti, as well as the terror attacks at the airport in Kabul and the ongoing suffering of COVID-19. This forces us to think about our relationship to God, who we know is all good. How can God allow evil to happen in the world that He has created for His beloved creatures? It is the price of freedom that allows evil to flourish. God created us as free human beings; our choice is to either do good or to pursue evil.
Unfortunately, many of God’s creatures sometimes cannot distinguish between what is good and what is evil. Rather, they pursue evil because they perceive it to be good, somehow convinced by others. And yet some feel that it is part of their religious duty or part of their political responsibility to do evil, for example, ISIS in Afghanistan. The only answer we know as Catholic Christians in the problem of evil is our gaze on the cross of Jesus Christ who succumbed to the greatest evil, to remind us that the greatest evil can also be the source of the greatest good which is the salvation of the world.
Through all of our suffering, we too participate in the ongoing salvation of the world and join our suffering to that of Jesus Christ. We have no other answer. As Saint Paul wrote to the Colossians, “We make up in our bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Jesus Christ.” (Col. 1:24) All that is lacking in those sufferings is our participation. September 11, 2001, was a time when we all collectively participated in the ongoing saving of the world from the evil that tends to dominate much of human activity.
Truly, when we remember, we must pray for those who have gone before us, for the dead, and especially for the first responders who gave their lives so heroically to save others, and for those who still are dying from the effects of the September 11 attacks. We remember that one of the spiritual works of mercy is to pray for the living and the dead. Is our passion for prayer somehow useless? Does it not affect our relationship with those who we love, both living and dead? Does not our prayer somehow affect our relationship with God?
Prayer, we know, does not change God. Prayer changes us, especially in the fact that we are ever ready and willing to accept God’s will in our life no matter what it is, even if we do not understand it. Prayer for those who still suffer the effects of loss is so necessary. Prayer for the dead is useful to them because we join in the communion of saints, especially for those who still have not entered into God’s glory. The martyrs of 9/11, I am sure, enjoy seeing God face-to-face for the sacrifice they endured.
When he came to the United States in 2015 to visit Ground Zero, we remember the words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, especially after he met with the families of the victims of first responders. He said, “In those family members, we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven. At the same time, those family members showed me the other face of this attack, the other face of their grief: the power of love and remembrance. A remembrance that does not leave us empty and withdrawn. The names of so many loved ones are written around the towers’ footprints. We can see them, we can touch them and we can never forget them.”
How insightful are these words and our power of remembrance which makes people present to us. The greatest power of remembrance we have is the Eucharist when we do what Jesus told us, “Do this in remembrance of me.” In fact, Jesus becomes present to us in the Eucharist. We can never forget the power of remembrance.
Pope Francis went on to say, “This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division. It is a source of great hope that in this place of sorrow and remembrance I can join with leaders representing the many religious traditions which enrich the life of this great city.”
As I think back to my own presence on that day, I can recall the deep impression that the presence of representative religious leaders in the city made on me personally. It was a unique time of unity that expressed not only our corporate sorrow, but also resolve to make our city, our country and our world a better place where terrorism can no longer affect us.
COVID-19 has had a similar effect on our City, as did 9/11 because of the almost universal effect on most residents. In 9/11, almost all knew someone who was affected by the terrorist attack, as now in the Covid pandemic we know someone who got the virus, or died from the virus. The same lessons on the existence of personal evil in 9/11 can be learned in the instance of Covid. We all hope that it is a virus of natural origins and not man-made. Evil in any manifestation must be accepted, as I said above, as a participation in the suffering of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. The precautions necessitated by these evil events are burdensome; airport security checks, vaccinations, masks, and social distancing to name a few. But these unpleasant penances can also be part of our suffering for participation with Christ’s saving mission.
On Saturday, September 11, I will celebrate the Eucharist at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph at the September 11 Memorial Mass – honoring the memory and sacrifice of FDNY Battalion 57 and all those lost on this day 20 years ago.
We all put out into the deep on September 11, 2001, and during these past 20 years, the memories are still vivid of the attacks and the aftermath. We must use our memories to strengthen our resolve to work for peace and reconciliation in a world touched by evil, but never dominated by evil. I invite you to join me in prayer on this special day of remembrance.