Reflections on 9/11

September 08, 2006

The following appears in the September 7 issue of the Catholic Standard newspaper:

September 11: The Fifth Anniversary
Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington

Most of us will long remember where we were on September 11, 2001, when we received word of the terrorist actions that brought so much death to New York City, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and our own Washington, D.C. Some actions are so horrendous that they outstrip our vocabulary’s ability to express them. Yet our memory holds the moment forever in high profile.

Five years ago, I was here in our nation’s capital with 50 other bishops from around the United States as the Administrative Committee of our Conference of Bishops met. At a certain point, the meeting was interrupted as we were informed of the first plane crash into the World Trade Center. In succession came the news of the other tower and then the Pentagon as targets of terrorist action. Finally came the word of the plane crash and the loss of life in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

We adjourned and did what the Church does in moments such as this—the only thing the Church can do. We prayed. We walked from our building to the National Shrine where Cardinal McCarrick, then Archbishop of Washington, led us in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Among the most vivid scenes that I recall was the cavernous Basilica of the National Shrine filled with people, including hundreds and hundreds of college students from The Catholic University of America. There was a sense of disbelief, or perhaps bewilderment, that this could happen in our country. We could sense a palpable level of anxiety. Overhead flew United States Air Force interceptor jets. Most of all, there was the realization that we needed to be together and in prayer.

In the next days and weeks, people gathered in prayer, faith and solidarity. At the same time, we also heard much about what was to be done as government officials and commentators in the media spoke about the origins of these attacks and the violent acts against innocent life. So much of the discussion focused on who was responsible and where they might be found. As the years have passed, greater clarity has certainly emerged concerning the destruction on 9/11 and those behind it.

Perhaps as we reflect five years later on that terrible day and all that it has come to symbolize, we find ourselves in a better position as well to place those events in the context of the great human struggle in which we are all caught up and that brings us face to face with the challenge of good against evil.

The cosmic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between peace and war, between violence and harmony, between hatred and love begins first in each human heart. It is waged there, and on its outcome depends true peace.

The beatitudes draw the demanding picture that Jesus set before us of a world of peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst for holiness, justice, mercy, compassion and consolation. To the extent that each one of us participates in that effort, there is more light, peace, harmony and love in the world. Our capacity to change the world is not as limited as we might think. While we may not be invited to summits, conferences and gatherings where many great political decisions are made, we are still part of the human family, and our voice in prayer is certainly heard by God.

Beyond our capacity to pray is our capacity to love and treat one another with respect, decency and justice. In this way, small but significant steps may be taken toward true and lasting peace. Perhaps if enough such steps were taken by enough people, the darkness could be just that much less powerful. The Christopher movement’s well-known motto, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” comes so readily to mind. But so does Pope Paul VI’s prophetic proclamation, “If you want peace, work for justice.” The Catholic vision of peace and of the new creation reminds us that we are to be strengthened with power through Christ’s Spirit so that Christ would dwell in our hearts (cf. Eph 3:17).

Just three days after the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks is the Church’s perennial celebration of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. The liturgical year holds up for us once again the mystery of the cross and its ultimate victory. For 2,000 years, we have exalted the cross to see in Christ not only an example of self-giving love for others, but the answers to the most profound human questions: what is the purpose of life, how do I respond to the many challenges of life and what values should guide my steps and actions. It is hard to see victory in the broken body of Christ on the cross and, yet, two millennia later, his voice continues to exert the strongest force for good in the world: “Love one another as I have loved you.” “If you would be my disciple, take up my cross and follow me.”

We must never allow the violence done to us to wound our inner conviction that Christ is the way, that the cross does hold out the means for salvation and that the Gospel of love in the end will be victorious.

What have we learned in these past five years? Perhaps we have come to understand how much we live in solidarity with people all over the world, many of whom live in distress, anxiety, poverty and fear. We also have learned that, together with other people around the world, we must find ways to bring to justice perpetrators of acts of terrorism. Perhaps we have also come to appreciate that ultimately the Gospel message remains the norm for our response. Since we are brothers and sisters, children of the same loving God, we must learn to support one another in our efforts for justice and peace and to implore God’s strength and grace to keep us from becoming less than what we are called to be—children of the light. We have also learned that this is best done on our knees in prayer.

Today we pray for those who are a part of our human family and who died in those tragic and horrible acts of violence. We also invoke God’s blessings on those who strive to contain violence around the world. We ask God to give all of us the strength to walk in the light of the beatitudes and to be agents of human solidarity, justice and true peace.

Susan Gibbs
Director of Communications
[email protected]