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9/11 Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Sunday, 11 September 2011

There are no coincidences. Of the seven possible days in the week, today, the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, falls on the day of the Sabbath celebration. And of all the 365 days in the calendar, today’s Mass readings center around forgiveness. It would be surprising if any homily in America this day does not put the 9/11 attacks in the context of these readings.

Our thoughts and prayers must first be with the victims of the attacks and their families; with those firemen and police and clergy who died while responding to the attacks; with the military members who have lost lives and limbs and the prospect of peace of mind in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and with the victims of violence in those countries. Today’s homilies will also rightly make these points.

And, as Christ tells us, our thoughts have to be with the terrorists and their masters who took some 3000 lives.  In His view, we must think of them seventy-seven times. We must defend ourselves against them, not allow their vision to prevail – and still forgive them. Trying to do all of that with faith, hope, and love is truly a needle hard to thread.

Perhaps the most asked question in the media this last week – even more frequent than “Will the president’s jobs plan help?” or “Who won the Republican presidential debate?” – was, “What has changed since September 11, 2001?” 

We should consider always the effects of the attacks on those whose lives have been directly darkened by the loss or harm of a loved one. But for my little part, I am struck by how little has changed.

Just before writing this column, I went for a run on a nearby path, the same path where I went for a run the afternoon of the 9/11 attacks. After watching the second airplane hit the tower with colleagues on the National Security Council staff, I evacuated the White House complex and rode to near my home with a co-worker, my assigned task being to help her stay calm – her husband worked at the Pentagon, from which we could see the smoke rising. 

Some time into the slow drive, her husband called her cell phone to say that he was all right. Figuring that the next days would be busy, and determined to preserve a semblance of normalcy, I went for a run. Then as now, with New York and Washington under terrorist warnings this weekend, I did not know if or when the next attack would come.

Beyond such trivial details of continuity, the same questions that drove history before 9/11 are still with us, unanswered.

Will the West, whose moral decay gave Islamist terrorists reason to believe that Europe and America were ripe for defeat, accept the challenge of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (who together have faced the earthly totalitarianisms of fascism, communism, and Islamist extremism) and recover the combination of faith and reason that was the basis of our civilization?

Will the culture of life prevail over the culture of death? Can the City of God, which will only come down fully by God’s grace at the end of time, at least make a few gains on the City of Man? The 9/11 attacks changed many lives, but they did not answer these questions for our society, nor for our individual souls, nor have they determined our personal choices.

On a less grand scale, as we go about our ordinary tasks, what are we to think on this day of remembrance? What do we say to give meaning to terrorist attacks and war, to the service of those who look beyond themselves to protect us at home and abroad? What can order our reactions when the powers of darkness, rulers of this world, light up the skies with the deaths of innocents?

Long before a few people with a nihilist vision flew airplanes into the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, today was going to be the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Feast of Our Lord, trumping any other event on the calendar. Today, let’s remember the gospel of forgiveness. Let’s remember those who have died. Let’s remember that the world has seen, and will see again, acts of great evil and acts of great service and self-sacrifice and love. 

Today, September 11, as on every Sunday, the Office of Readings guides us in what to think and sing, and it does not change with fiery attacks or horrific wars or financial crises or any of the other vagaries of this world. 

Te Deum. . . .“Make them to be numbered with thy Saints: in glory everlasting.”

Joseph R. Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Manfred, September 11, 2011
At some point it might be beneficial to discuss the true reasons we were attacked in New York and Washington. Bin Laden actually explained why. Perhaps, as he explained and informed Americans know, was the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia (since removed), and the U.S. support of the 60 year occupation of Palestine by Israel which many American Jews and Israelis can no longer abide. Once our and Israel's man in Egypt was removed, Mubarak, Egyptian crowds ransacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
written by Austin Ruse, September 11, 2011
It should be remembered that at the funeral Mass for Barbara Olsen at the Arlington Cathedral, during the prayer of the faithful read by Kate O'Beirne and written by Kate's husband Jim O'Beirne then working in the Pentagon, the congregants prayed for those who killed Olsen.

A Jewish friend of many of ours, a real patriot and a wonderful woman, was at the Mass. Her daughter, then a young girl now a wonderful young woman, leaned over and said, "Mommy we don't believe that, do we." Her mother said, "No we don't."

One of the staggering things about the Christian message is that we forgive our enemies and even pray for them, even when the wound is still bleeding.
written by Leonardo, September 11, 2011
There is an interesting fact. In 1684, to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Vienna the year before, Pope Innocent XI inserted the feast of the Holy Name of Mary in the General Roman Calendar, assigning to it the SUNDAY within the octave of the Nativity of Mary (8-15 September). The feast was removed from the Roman Calendar in 1969 but it was restored by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Currently, the feast is celebrated on September 12. In the Ambrosian Rite, the celebration is on 09/11.
written by Howard Kainz, September 11, 2011
"We must defend ourselves against them, not allow their vision to prevail – and still forgive them." We should forgive those do us wrong, and pray for them, but I don't think there is any mandate to forgive those who do objectively unforgivable things to other people -- like Hitler, Mao,Stalin, Pol Pot. God, of course, may know of extenuating circumstances that we are not aware of. But we should not forfeit our ability to call a spade a spade.
written by Francis Beckwith, September 11, 2011
If you read today's gospel, the story that Jesus tells is of a servant, who asks his master for mercy and he grants it. That servant subsequently does not extend that same grace to his debtor, and thus results in the master punishing the servant.

Several things stand out here. First, if Jesus were teaching forgiveness without repentance, shouldn't the master have forgiven the servant a second time? Second, in both cases, the one in debt requests mercy, thus indicating a condition upon which forgiveness is granted. If the terrorists of 9/11 were to repent and ask forgiveness of those whom they harmed, then a Christian is required to grant it. If not, then the master punishing the servant for his lack of charity makes no sense. If forgiveness is unconditional and limitless--without regard to circumstance or repentant heart--then the master should be condemned for not extending forgiveness yet again. Jesus, however, does not do that. So, it seems to me that too many homilists--both yesterday evening and throughout this day--are reading into the gospels a pacifist sensibility that the text simply does not allow.
written by Manfred, September 11, 2011
Thank you Messrs. Kainz and Beckwith. I for one am in your debt for pushing back on the current "Catholic(?)" thinking on forgiveness. It is just silly. What else is the purpose of Confession? In the words of Cdl Ratzinger:"The way I see it, the proof that the Church has Divine origin is the fact that it has survived the millions of sermons delivered every Sunday." I am sure he would include the "too many homilists--" whom Francis Beckwith cites above.
written by senex, September 12, 2011
September 11, 2011

Today is the 24th Sunday in Ordinary time. The gospel is about forgiveness, with Christ telling Peter that one must forgive not just 7 times but 77 times. Today is also the 10th anniversary of 9-11.

Today’s sermon was a lost opportunity to explain the nature of forgiveness. After a brief mention that we should pray for the victims of 9-11, the priest gave what could have been the same sermon he gave on this Sunday for the last xx years. What a lost opportunity! With the nation mourning still over the hateful and deliberate killing and destruction of thousands of lives and property 10 years ago, there was no mention or analysis of the (in)applicability of forgiveness of those who planned and/or implemented the attacks on 9-11.

This brings me to the question what is the nature of ‘forgiveness’? This event was not just a personal affront by one individual against another individual. And its effects were not just to one individual, but to the nation and really to the whole of western civilization. Does forgiveness for this attack mean turning one’s cheek and implicitly saying “Do it again!” because we forgive you? Does this mean that we should release the prisoners in Guantanamo? What is the role of retribution, defensive measures, vengeance or even animosity? As Pope Benedict said in Caritas in Veritate, love /charity demands justice and never lacks justice. (Para. 6)

What are the criteria for integration of forgiveness with pursuit of justice? Is justice being promoted by the armed fighting against Al Queda and the Taliban? Or trying and executing the masterminds of the attack? Does forgiveness mean that we cannot retaliate in any fashion? Even to prevent another attack? Is there not a place here for righteous anger? As an analogy, if a person has an infectious cyst, he has the right to cut it out so as not to spread the disease and possibly kill him. Doesn’t the same thinking apply by analogy to the West’s retaliation against the Taliban?

What this boils down to is whether forgiveness means that the wrongdoers should not be punished for their wrongdoing. That is the moral question that we the people would have liked to hear in today’s sermon. What are the criteria that we should apply in making our decisions in this very real situation? After all Christ did make a whip and cast out the money changers from the temple. Maybe he should just have forgiven them and let them continue as they were.
written by Mike M, September 13, 2011
Manfred, in Al Qaeda's english-language releases to the media, they claim that the attacks are about our troop presence and this or that other grievance, but when they write for their own followers, they make their true intentions clear. They will not be satisfied until we convert to Islam, agree to pay them tribute in recognition of the superiority of the Muslim world, or die. Don't believe their propaganda. Al Qaeda doesn't want to live alone in peace... they want every Christian subjugated or killed. Several of their arabic language statements to that effect are available in The Al Qaeda Reader, edited and translated by Raymond Ibrahim.

I, in large part, agree with the other sentiments expressed in the comments here. Perhaps it's my own weakness as a Christian, but I'm not sure what forgiving Zawahiri would entail. He continues to obstinately in his efforts to slaughter innocent people, and shows no signs that he's open to discussing the matter. I feel like my fury at what he's done is fully justified... St. John Chrysostom, among others, wrote about how a lack of anger in the face of injustice can, in fact, be sinful. Surely, I would be delighted if he repented of his wickedness and turned to Christ for forgiveness, but it doesn't seem like we can wait around counting on that. I can't say I wouldn't feel pleased if he were "eliminated" as a threat to humanity in the next drone strike or a special ops raid. Should I feel differently? Does Christ call us to something different? If so, I don't know what.

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