Forgiveness After 9/11 (Part 2)

Interview With a Chaplain Who Counseled Victims’ Relatives

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ROME, SEPT. 5, 2005 ( The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath pointed up the worst and best in people, says a priest who counseled relatives of the victims.

Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar, now a professor of philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, was one of the Red Cross chaplains assisting the victims’ relatives after the attacks in New York.

He shared his impressions of those days with ZENIT. Part 1 of this interview appeared Sunday.

Q: We all remember the impressive wave of solidarity and patriotism with which Americans reacted to the terrorist attack — there were countless volunteers, material aid and national flags. Was this atmosphere already evident on that occasion?

Father Aguilar: Yes, it was seen throughout the world. First, in the victims’ relatives. The majority of them had to form long lines to enter the [memorial center]; however, there was no complaining or moaning; rather, silence and serenity.

Almost all stuck photos of the victims on the walls, trees and traffic lights, giving details so that they could be recognized, and often accompanying them with a prayer, a flower or a candle. They were like small shrines of love and the sense of transcendence drowned out the temptation to hatred and despair.

Second, the police and Red Cross authorities could not have been kinder or more attentive with people. Moreover, there were a good number of volunteers who were giving out bottles of water and food to the relatives. They went around the building constantly, but few relatives accepted drinks or food. Their grief made them lose their appetite and thirst.

One noted, finally, the solidarity of the hundreds of people who from the barriers looked on the victims’ relatives: some prayed, others gave out food or holy cards to the police for them to distribute to the relatives, others waved the national flag gently in sign of tribute.

One noted in their look the desire to help in some way. Their presence was comforting. They seemed to say: «Your tragedy is our tragedy. We are with you.»

Such gestures of solidarity multiplied in Ground Zero, where I saw thousands of emotional messages, flowers and dolls in the small improvised shrines. Adjacent to it was a Catholic chapel, St. Joseph’s, given over to the service of volunteers and policemen serving the people. On the walls they hung dozens of drawings of children from schools of different states of the country with phrases of solidarity toward the victims and their heroes: the policemen and firemen.

Q: What did it mean for you emotionally to meet so many people suffering the loss of a loved one?

Father Aguilar: One thing is to see the twin towers collapse from afar or on television; it is something else to see the faces of the victims in photos and of their relatives in flesh and blood.

In the latter case, the tragedy is personalized. It is no longer a mathematical number of victims and becomes a series of biographies and beautiful stories of love truncated brusquely, unjustly and irretrievably.

It is very difficult to express the multitude of contradictory sentiments that welled up on that occasion. First, feelings of profound grief, compassion, incomprehension and powerlessness predominated.

Then came those of anger against such enormous injustice and evil. The pain became more acute on discovering that so many good and promising lives were cut off in the fullness of life, leaving profound wounds in innocent loved ones: newly married wives or sweethearts about to get married; babies and small children unable to understand what was happening; parents, siblings and friends that would not be seen again. …

I remember that after being with the relatives for three hours I was exhausted psychically and physically, as if my bones had all of a sudden become heavy or I hadn’t had any sleep for several days. Then I understood for the first time what the evangelist Luke says of the apostles in Gethsemane: «[Jesus] found them sleeping for sorrow.» It is true that sorrow can weaken a person.

Q: I imagine that contact with such a tragic reality elicits many reflections. What lessons did you draw from your experience?

Father Aguilar: Several. The tragedy of September 11 became for me a symbol of the titanic and everlasting struggle between good and evil: between diabolic and insane evil that kills and destroys senselessly, and good that imposes itself on the basis of love, selflessness, compassion, solidarity.

There, we saw the best and the worst of which a human being is capable. And we witnessed that the best triumphs over the worst.

As a second lesson I would emphasize the contingency of human life and the inscrutable ways of Providence.

An American girl told me that she had lost the head of her company, a 30-year-old German called Kraus. He had flown from Germany to New York on Monday the 10th to head a meeting on Tuesday morning, just at the hour of the attacks.

The American girl should have attended the meeting, but that day she missed the first ferry from New Jersey to Manhattan. While taking the second, the towers were collapsing. Why does a young man come from Germany to the United States to die and an American girl misses the appointment in which she would have died? Only God knows.

Third, I was impressed to see how a person can accept a tragedy with heroic resignation and acceptance of the divine will.

I will never forget Patty, a woman with two small children, whose husband had called her by phone from the 103rd floor of one of the towers to tell her: «Darling, I love you. Take care of the children.»

Patty told me this between sobs: «My husband spoke to me slowly, with serenity, pondering his words.» I asked myself: And if I was faced with sure death, would I accept it with so much serenity as that young husband and father of a family?

Finally, September 11 showed us that love is capable of transcending all sorrow, including physical separation which is a brutal attack.

Among the hundreds of messages that victims’ relatives wrote in the wooden platform that was improvised in Ground Zero, my attention was caught by one written in poor English by a little girl, incorrect but full of emotion.

It said: «Dear Daddy, I miss you so and it is so difficult without you around. I know that all heroes must be in heaven. That is why a lost my hero, my heart, my Daddy. I love you so much! With love, your little girl.»

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