Forgiveness After 9/11 (Part 1)

Interview With a Priest Who Counseled Victims’ Relatives

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ROME, SEPT. 4, 2005 ( What can one say to a woman who lost her husband and the father of her children in a terrorist attack such as that of Sept. 11, 2001?

This was a question Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar had to ask himself as he was one of the Red Cross chaplains assisting the victims’ relatives after the attacks in New York.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Aguilar, now a professor of philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, reveals what he witnessed after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Part 2 of this interview appears Monday.

Q: Could you describe the relatives of the victims?

Father Aguilar: In regard to their religious confession, the majority were Christians of whom, according to my impression, more than half were Catholics. Practically speaking, the Our Father could be prayed and a passage of the Gospel read with all of them.

As regards age, there were adults of all ages, although 30- and 40-year-old women predominated. I met several parents who had lost one of their children, and engaged individuals, such as Elizabeth, a 28-year-old girl, engaged for five years, who was to be married in three months’ time.

I met an even greater number of young wives, like Linda Thorpe, who was holding her first newborn baby, and her two friends, who had just begun to start a family of their own. The three women were proud of their husbands’ virtues and dedication to social works. In the photo they showed me, the three men were happily toasting in a restaurant. Who would have thought that in a few weeks the three would be together before the Creator?

Q: What does a chaplain say and do for people who have suffered the loss of a loved one in a massive tragedy?

Father Aguilar: In such tragedies the chaplain should not do or say much. He consoles and gives hope more by his company and solidarity than by his words.

The priest asks each family if they need anything, he says some words of consolation to them, and invites them to pray a simple prayer such as the Our Father. Of course, because of their emotional state, people are not ready for sermons or long periods of vocal prayer.

As I was able to appreciate, the majority of people, whether or not believers, are greatly comforted by the presence of a priest at such times. One never knows the psychological and spiritual impact that his action has, together with divine grace, in the interior of suffering souls.

Days later, the Red Cross authorities sent me a letter and a diploma of acknowledgement, as they noted the impact of the priestly presence.

Q: How did the victims’ relatives react to the attacks? Were they angry toward God and the terrorists? Did they have hope or were they desperate?

Father Aguilar: I approached people with certain apprehension. I thought that many would reject spiritual help and that some would rave and rant against God and the killers. Fortunately, it wasn’t like that.

The majority received chaplains with a good spirit and I never heard a complaint against anyone. People accepted their terrible suffering with uncommon resignation. I am convinced that there was a special grace from God that allowed them to suffer with patience and without bitterness.

I imagine the Lord grants this grace in cases as desperate as this one. Moreover, everyone had the hope that their relatives or friends could still be alive. The previous day, five people had been rescued from the rubble. Unfortunately, no others would be found alive.

There I learned, despite everything, that profound love for a person does not let the flame of hope be easily extinguished: It is thought that even the impossible can become a reality.

Q: The Muslim terrorists of the attacks in the United States, Madrid, Israel and Iraq, to mention the most dramatic cases, kill and cause unspeakable sufferings without showing compassion or remorse. How can we seek justice without falling prey to hatred? What should be the attitude of a Christian who suffers because of the terrorists?

Father Aguilar: The same attitude as Christ’s. Jesus was unjustly condemned, tortured and crucified by men who, conscious of his innocence, were merciless toward him. How did the Lord react? Interiorly, he was prepared to forgive them for everything. That is why he prayed: «Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.»

However, the forgiveness offered gratuitously and unconditionally by Christ could not benefit the soul of the unjust one as long as the latter did not acknowledge his sin, repent of it and seek to repair it.

Note that in his request for unconditional forgiveness, Jesus does not address those executing him but his Father. On the other hand, when the good thief fulfills the conditions to be forgiven, confessing and rejecting his sins, Jesus promises him the benefits of forgiveness: «Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.»

Therefore, we must forgive everyone from our heart unconditionally, although exteriorly only those can be forgiven who repent and change their behavior.

Justice, however, must not be set against forgiveness, as the case of the good thief also shows. Even after forgiving him, Jesus does not free him from the cross, that is, from the punishment that the wrongdoer himself considered «just.» Thus, we must forgive everyone interiorly while we demand that justice be done.

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