Remembering a Tragedy

A New York Priest Reflects on Catholic Hope

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 12, 2011 ( Here is a reflection on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Father Robert Imbelli, priest of the Archdiocese of New York and a professor of theology at Boston College. The article was first published Sunday in the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano.

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September 11th 2001, in Boston, New York, and Washington D.C., was radiant and cloudless — a perfect late summer day. Few who experienced its beginning and then the horror which followed can see such a day again without a sigh of sadness. But the remembrance of tragedy, like the anamnesis of liturgy, can serve as a call to renewed commitment and communion.

Blessed John Henry Newman has taught us to distinguish between notional and real understanding. The former, though important, remains abstract and conceptual; the latter is concrete and experiential and spurs to action. The tragedy of September 11th summons to the vivid realization of four truths.

First: religious passion and persuasion can energize for good, but can also breed deadly fanaticism. To be life-giving, religious commitment must be tempered by the discernment of reason. One of the important New Testament texts, often cited by Benedict XVI, is the beginning of chapter 12 of the Letter to the Romans. There the Apostle appeals to us to engage in “spiritual worship” — logiken latreian (12:1). Such worship “according to logos” realizes that “love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:10). For Pope Benedict authentic faith cannot spurn reason, but purifies and perfects it.

Second: we so often take for granted and fail to acknowledge the preciousness of the gift of life and love. Many young people, in the aftermath of September 11th, re-read Blessed John Paul II’s Encyclical, “The Gospel of Life” and it challenged them to appropriate more fully its vision of an integral humanism. They came to realize that a truly catholic vision integrates concern for the fetus in the womb, the widow and orphan, the refugee, and the elderly. It does not put these concerns in competition with one another, but weaves them into a seamless commitment to the Lord who came “that all may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).

Third: September 11th revealed in a striking way human life’s utter precariousness. All our aspirations and achievements can be so quickly snuffed out. “Our days are like grass… the wind sweeps over us and we are gone”, laments the Psalmist” (Ps 103:15-16). In light of this realization all can surely take to heart the Buddhist tradition’s exhortation: “be mindful!”. The spiritual challenge to each is to be mindful of the present moment and the precious presence of the other. The biblical tradition, echoed daily in the Liturgy of the Hours, insists: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7-8)! And so often the voice of God speaks through the voices of our neighbors, their joy and hope, sorrow and affliction.

Fourth: the most vivid remembrance of that terrible day remains, not the hatred of the terrorists, but the courageous sacrifice of the rescuers, the «first responders.» Whether these men and women were Christians or Jews, Muslims or persons of no explicit religious faith, they heeded the teaching of Jesus: «greater love than this no one has than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends» (Jn 15:13). Theirs was a lived solidarity, even unto death.

But Catholic hope transcends even this generous earthly solidarity. It is not limited merely to the present life. Our great hope encompasses as well the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. As Pope Benedict writes in his splendid Encyclical Spe Salvi: «We should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death.

«In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other — my prayer for him — can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.»

This is the prayer and hope believers will hold in their hearts as they gather on the Lord’s Day to remember the tenth anniversary of September 11th and to celebrate once again the communion of all in Christ.

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