On Sunday, September 11th, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, I celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The homily I preached on that occasion is printed below. Although we can never forget that day, may the powerful message of the Gospel to forgive those who hurt us live in our hearts.
We welcome all to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Mother Church of the Diocese of Syracuse. We welcome especially our many visitors and friends as we remember the tragic events that took place 10 years ago in New York City, in Washington, D.C. and in Pennsylvania.
As we remember and reflect upon that dreadful day, even today we cannot help but feel some resentment. And feeling that resentment, we recognize that Jesus has a message for us in the Gospel. It is a message of forgiveness, powerfully expressed in the parable of the King and his dealings with his servant. The debt was great, the King’s mercy even greater.
One of the Lord’s great graces given to us is the ability to forgive someone. It comes slowly and sometimes needs to be requested. Today, even as our sense of security as individuals and as a society is challenged, let us ask the Lord for the grace of forgiveness. The point of the parable is not that God is fickle about forgiveness, taking it back if we do not do likewise, nor that God is vindictive if we fail to follow the divine lead. Rather, the parable is a stark warning of the consequences of letting our hearts become solidified in unforgiveness. Hearts hardened desiring revenge set in motion endless cycles of violence. When we pray for the gift of forgiveness, we ourselves experience God’s tender mercy.
September 11, 2001 was a terrible day for all of us. So many people wondered where God was and how He could permit this tragedy. But our faith teaches us that God was present and walked with us each step of the way as the events of the day unfolded before us.
On that sad day, however, something else happened, something good. We opened our hearts and loved one another openly and freely that day. Family and friends gathered to reassure one another. People who don’t often go to church went to church to pray for the victims and their families. People were extraordinarily kind to one another, even to strangers. All over the country people were bewildered, talked in hushed tones and wondered about the future. People from other countries around the world sent expressions of concern and sympathy. Some nations sent rescue workers to work side-by-side with our firefighters and police officers who responded to the destruction. On that dark day, people turned to one another and showed love, helping out strangers and anyone in need.
How often we have been told that love is the heart of the Christian message. It is the main thing that Jesus talked about when He walked on earth. He tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But He also tells us to love our enemies and those who persecute us. The Scripture readings for today are so appropriate. The book of Sirach was written to remind God’s chosen people that they were special and they needed to preserve their Jewish identity. They would preserve their identity when they forgave their neighbor’s injustice; set enmity aside and hated no one. That message rings true for us also.
In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us of our need to forgive our brothers and sisters. St. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” There is no number at which we can stop forgiving. We must forgive over and over again just as Jesus forgives us over and over again.
On the anniversary of 9/11 could God really be calling us to love our enemies? Indeed He does. God loves each of us, with our strengths and our weaknesses. He loves us even when we turn away from Him. He asks us to love others who are not perfect or offend us and even hurt us. We cannot do this on our own. We can only do it if we stay connected to God. It is only when we are receiving God’s love on a daily basis, through prayer and the sacraments, that we have the power to put our love into action and transform enemies into friends.
I imagine that each of us comes to this 10th anniversary with a variety of sentiments depending perhaps on our age, what we recall from that day, whether we knew someone who perished or someone who responded to the destruction by offering their assistance. I do not think that one word can capture what we feel or think about Sept. 11, 2001. Resentment may resurface. Gratitude, for the countless acts of self-sacrifice and generosity offered by so many, may also find a place in our hearts. And then of course, the inner conflict we may experience when we hear the Gospel speak so emphatically about love of enemies and forgiveness even for those who hurt us. Such a wide range of thoughts and feelings is to be expected. But in the selflessness offered by so many on Sept. 11, 2001 and in the days and months that followed, do we not learn that as horrific as the day was, mercy and kindness, goodness and love were stronger than the death that loomed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania? I hope this is the message that is alive in our hearts today.
Let us turn to the patroness of our country and our diocese, the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and ask her intercession on behalf of all those who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and for our beloved country and diocese.