Homily for September 11, 2011, XXIV Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A
Ten years ago today, I had been back in the USA for just a couple of months after returning from Rome where I had recently finished my degree in philosophy. I had come back to America to teach philosophy in a seminary just 45 minutes north of central Manhattan. The savage terrorist attacks of 9/11 were the last thing I had ever expected to see upon my return, and like everyone else, I was stunned and horrified. I wasn’t a priest yet, but several of my colleagues were, and they went down to “Ground Zero” to pray with the families and friends of the victims and to offer spiritual support to the people who were working at the site trying to rescue buried survivors and to recover the remains of victims. Those priests brought back stories of faith and courage in the face of tragedy.
A few weeks later, a group of us went down to see Ground Zero and to pray for the victims. The area was restricted, but the guard let us through when he saw we were priests and brothers; he said he didn’t want to go to hell for not letting us in. A wooden platform had been built overlooking the site, and that’s where we stood. It was a panorama of devastation, a huge pile of rubble strewn with burnt and crushed office furniture, paperwork, and fragments of clothing. Family members and friends of victims had written messages to their loved ones on the wood railings of the platform – things like, “you’re our hero”, “we love you”, and “we’ll never forget you”. I still get teary eyed thinking about it today.
I think we all felt much the same way: sorrow and compassion for the victims and their families, disgust at the evil in human hearts that could commit such an act, and anger. An anger that could easily go beyond the desire for justice, to the desire for revenge.
In today’s readings, God challenges us to go beyond our natural reactions. He reminds us that we can be quick to demand justice when we have been offended, but when we ourselves are guilty, we hope for mercy. Jesus teaches us that we can’t have it both ways. Although things like the 9/11 attacks are particularly vile examples of evil, we are all guilty of smaller offenses against God and against each other. We all need and want to be forgiven, and in order for that to happen, we must be willing to forgive. The more generously we pardon others for the sake of love, the more generously we will be pardoned.
This does not mean that justice is to be laid aside. On one hand, God will exact justice in His due time, in this life or the next, according to each person’s deeds, the sincerity of their repentance, and their efforts to make reparation. On the other hand, we have human institutions which exist to help enforce justice to protect the safety and order of society. But if we want to receive divine pardon, our justice too must be tempered with mercy, taking into account the possibility of the guilty people’s conversion of heart and granting them a chance to right their wrongs. Above all, we cannot give hate or vengefulness any place in our hearts.
That is, perhaps, the hardest part. We can say we forgive someone, and mean it, and even release them from any practical obligations to us, but the feelings of anger and bitterness often remain. It can be helpful to take it very seriously when Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies and do good to those who offend us. Working with God’s grace to overcome those negative feelings frees us to become more loving people and to live our lives more centered on God. On the contrary, if we harbor and foster our anger and frustration, our negative feelings can become hate, and we become just like the people who hurt us.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have had long-term effects on the way we live and see the world, and tragically took the lives of many innocent people. Those events were just a part of a larger and much older conflict that continues today. Perhaps the best and most challenging thing that you and I can do to commemorate the lost, and to right this terrible wrong, is to ask God to help us and all people to recognize our own sinfulness, to ask forgiveness, and to forgive each other, no matter how great the offenses against us. Then we will be at peace with each other and with God, in this world and in eternity.