Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort, Springfield, Va.
“We will never forget.”
Where were you 10 years ago today, September 11, 2001? Where were you when you found out that an airplane
had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center? Or that a second plane had crashed into the South Tower? Or that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon? Or that a fourth plane that had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania? Or that the Twin Towers had collapsed to the ground? Where were you? Have you forgotten?
Except for some who were too young, or perhaps not yet immigrated to America, I don’t think any of us will ever forget.
I was just coming back to my room after saying 8:30 Mass at St. Andrew’s in Centerville when I passed the opened door of my pastor’s room and heard the cable news reporting on the first crash
into the World Trade Center. And as I came in to his room to see what was going on, at 9:02 a.m., I saw the second plane crash into the second tower. And then we heard news about the third crash, this time just miles away at the Pentagon.
Where were you?
For most of us, I think, it’s seared into our memories.
Maybe some of you were at the Pentagon that day,
or worried about dear friends or family members you knew were there.
Words can not express, nor can we innumerate, the rush of emotions that overwhelmed us that day. But three do stand out: grief, anger, and fear.
We grieved as we knew that in those buildings there were 10s of 1000s, of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers,
who had simply gone to work that clear crisp morning, like so many of the rest of us, and as on so many other days.
And now they were trapped 70 stories up in the sky, or under huge piles of wreckage, or already consumed by the raging flames or fiery crash.
And so we grieved.
And we were angry.
Some cowardly enemy had attacked us, unprovoked, without real warning.
They had dared to attack the very heart of our brave military,
while they were on a peacetime footing, their defenses down. They had attacked the innocent civilian population
in the heart of our nation’s largest city. And they seemed to have plans for even more attacks on civilians that day. So we were angry.
And there was fear.
Fear of the unknown—we are free and open society and our enemies were aggressively exploiting that: we were completely vulnerable to almost any kind of terror attack.
Where would they strike next?
The White House?
The Sears Tower in Chicago?
The Mall of America in Minnesota?
We had no idea, and so we were engulfed by fear.
But in the middle of all those emotions, something else came to the forefront.
As surprising as the attacks were, almost equally surprising was another response common to almost all Americans:
a dramatic national turning toward God in prayer.
Even by the media, as we heard reporters and anchors repeatedly asking for prayers and saying things like, “please, God,” or “they’re in our prayers.”
And what an amazing sight that evening, as hundreds of members of Congress gathered on the front steps of the Capitol and spontaneously broke out singing “God bless America”.
God and prayer were our most secure hope, and the whole country seemed to understand that.
And in our weakness we became strong, with our faith in God’s omnipotent care.
And in the days that followed 9/11 that faith remained everywhere you looked.
Millions joined in through TV as thousands packed the National Cathedral in Washington and Yankee Stadium in New York for one purpose: to pray to Almighty God.
And across the nation, especially right here in northern Virginia, churches everywhere were packed, as people awoke to the reality of their own mortality
and dependence on God,
and His tremendous love for us.
America turned to God, and in Him our grief was eased with divine consolation and hope, our anger controlled and purified by His charity and wisdom, and our fear transformed by His courage and strength.
“We will never forget.”
That was what we said that the day.
But a lot of things have happened since then.
And as the years pass, and events unfold,
it seems like some of us have forgotten much more than we should.
But we must never do that. We must never forget that we have enemies who have and are still actively trying to harm our nation. We must never forget that 3000 people were killed in the 9/11/01 attacks,
and that thousands of Americans have died,
10’s of thousands have been wounded,
and millions have been and are deployed to
(including many of you) to defend us from future attacks. We must never forget.
Most especially, we must never forget about God, and how on that day, and every day since, He alone was and is our strength and shield when all human efforts fail, when enemies surround us,
or life overwhelms us. That He is always there to give us His consolation and hope, charity and wisdom, courage and strength.
But today all too many seem to have forgotten all that. Why is it that only 12 days after the terrorist attacks 10s of thousands of New Yorkers could gather in Yankee Stadium for a prayer service led by various clerics and politicians, but 10 years after the attacks the politicians will not allow even one cleric
to pray at the Ground Zero memorial?
Sometimes it seems that some folks are embarrassed by America’s turning to God on 9/11. Worse than that, over the last 10 years many have tried to blame God, or rather faith in God, for 9/11 and its aftermath. They say, it’s religious faith in God that caused the divisions and antipathy that led to the 9/11 attack. And more and more they say that we need to learn from that and remove God and religion from public life.
They say we need to get beyond religious differences.
That we must get rid of any notions that God is on our side, or that Christianity is in any way superior to Islam.
And they say we must be tolerant of and even encourage public expressions of Muslim piety, while at the same time they continue to work to mock and remove Christian piety and symbols in art, the media, and public places.
In the end, sometimes it seems that if they cannot rid America or the West of God, at least they will use this as an opportunity
to ridicule and diminish Christianity.
They want us to forget, that on 9/11 the vast majority of Americans turned to Jesus Christ for hope and strength. They want us to forget that Jesus told us, and we believe: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” They want us to believe the religion of Muhammad is just as “good” as the religion of Jesus Christ.
But the thing is, that’s just not true.
Do NOT misunderstand me: There are many good and kind Muslims in the world.
There are even many good things about the religion of Islam.
But in the end, Islam is fatally flawed, and Christianity is the one true faith.
Even if you set aside the fundamental difference between the two, on the one hand, that Christians believe that Jesus is God, and “no one comes to the Father except through” Him,
and on the other, that Muslims believe that Jesus is only a prophet, and that Muhammad is the greatest prophet, and only his teachings can lead us to God. And even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that the two religions hold the same moral teachings about love and forgiveness and peace and violence, –I don’t believe that for one second, but let’s just allow that for the sake of argument. Even so…Islam still has at least this basic flaw: its founder.
When members of these two religions, Christianity and Islam, try to live by their religion’s teachings in their day to day lives they inevitably have to understand those teachings in the light of the example of their founder—either Jesus or Mohammed.
So think about these fundamentally different examples they give us. Muhammad began his religion by commanding his armed followers to conquer his enemies;
Jesus’ began His religion
by commanding His apostles to lay down their arms
as He personally surrendered to His enemies.
Muhammad’s hands carried a sword to execute his enemies; Jesus’ hands carried the Cross and were eventually nailed to the cross as His enemies executed Him. Muhammad cursed his enemies; Jesus cried out “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
In short, Muhammad, whatever else he was, was a man of violence and terror, while Christ was the Prince of Peace.
Now, some say, both Christians and Muslims
do many horrible things in the name of God. Perhaps. But the thing is, in the light of the life of Christ,
when Christians feel compelled to resort to violence,
perhaps in self defense or in protection of others,
we always know we must ask ourselves:
what would the Crucified Christ, the Prince of Peace,
have to say about this?
In the light of His life and death on the cross the teachings of Christ take on a unique and specific context, and so set a completely higher standard
than anything found in the platitudes of other religions.
So that when Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, …bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you….”
we see Him on the cross not only blessing and praying for those who curse and abuse Him, but laying down His life to save them, because He loves them.
Or when Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? and Jesus answers, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times,” we see Him whipped, spat upon, cursed, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, gasping for breath, bleeding to death
—how many ways and times did they offend that day? Surely much more than “77 times.” And we hear Him say: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Yes, Christians sin.
Yes, we all too often ignore the teachings of Christ.
But thank God we have the teachings of Christ and the life of Christ
that lead us to see ourselves for the sinners we are, and to hold ourselves to the higher standard of Jesus Himself.
And you know, I think that is what has made American the great country it is. Whether people like to admit it our not, our founding fathers counted on the Christian faith and Christian morals to enable the people to justly govern themselves.
And in my opinion, that’s what has helped our country
become the greatest nation on earth. Yes we go to war, but we do not enslave our enemies once conquered. When we defeated the Germans and Japanese in World War II
we didn’t enslave them or colonize them:
we freed them and paid to rebuild their countries.
And the same is true in the current war on terror. Within 18 months of American troops toppling Sadaam Hussein the Iraqi people elected their own government.
And how many American lives have been sacrificed and how many 10s of billions of American dollars have we spent to protect and rebuild the new free Iraq?
To me this is the effect of the Christian moral ethos, deeply rooted in the soul of our nation, making us always ready to love our enemy,
and eager forgive all who offend us. And I think too, it’s why sometimes we forget, even though we promised to “never forget.” Americans want to forgive and forget, and get on with life in peace.
But we must never forget. Because, while we must love and forgive our enemies, we must also love and protect our families, our neighbors, our country. And even as we must bless and pray for those who curse and abuse us, we must also bless those who fight to defend us, and pray for those who have died at the hand of our enemies.
Today, we remember and pray for souls of all those who died in the 9/11 attacks, and in the War on Terror. And we remember and pray for all who have sacrificed so much to protect our liberty and safety. And we remember that our nation still has enemies who wish to harm us, and so we pray for the safety of our nation.
And in all those prayers we remember that God was our strength and hope in 2001, and has been these 10 years since. And that God’s name is Jesus Christ, our teacher, our example, and our savior.
Only by remembering that, by keeping Jesus Christ in center of our lives at all times, can we be, at one and the same time, both strong in confronting our enemies,
and forgiving of all the harm the do us.
For all this, for those who died, for those who serve, and for our faith in Christ, let us pray, that “We will never forget.”