This weekend, we remember what happened one year ago on September 11, 2001 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, and I thought I’d share with you my experience in New York. I lived in Manhattan, and had been the World Trade Center four times that weekend, exactly one year ago. I was having breakfast with my parents in a hotel in lower Manhattan when the planes hit. They left town, and I went downtown to start volunteering. By Thursday morning, I was working full-time at the Family Assistance Center, the main place for all relatives who lost loved ones in New York.
2,900 people died in New York City that day, and over 50,000 distraught relatives came through the Family Assistance Center in the weeks afterwards. I myself talked with and counseled about 1500 grieving relatives over three months and worked one day a week at Ground Zero, where I spoke with well over 500 rescue workers. The Red Cross asked me to be the local coordinator of the 500 chaplains who were volunteering at the Family Assistance Center.
I remember going to Ground Zero one week after the attacks. There stood seven stories of smoking rubble, where the two 110 story buildings once stood. One firefighter came running off the pile, as they were digging out bodies, and said to me, “Quick, Father, tell me how to pray, because I’m digging for my best friend and I don’t know what to say.” Once, I came across 20 firefighters who had just arrived that morning from Mexico. They asked me to pray with them before they started to work. We joined hands, prayed together, and they all burst out crying. I remember holding one weeping mother, who lost her son. I said to her, “Someday, you will see him again.” She said, “Yes, I know, because the resurrection is all I have.” There were so many encounters that I cannot remember them all.
After a while, we started bringing large groups of fifty grieving family members to Ground Zero to pray. We would walk up to the ruins, which were horrific, covering over 16 acres. All the relatives would burst out crying. One mother, who was Catholic and lost her 30 year old son, turned to me there and said, “Father, I have no room for anger. I’m filled with compassion for the families of the hijackers, for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. What must they be going through? What is their suffering like, that a few of them would go insane and fly planes into these buildings? Bombing Afghanistan will not end my sorrow or heal my grief or bring my son back. It will only increase my grief.” I thought her response was the response of Christ. The grief everywhere was overwhelming, but like many people, she showed the true Christian response of compassion and love.
St. Paul writes that love is the fulfillment of the law; that loves does no evil to the neighbor; that we are to love one another as Christ loved us, no matter what happens; that nonviolent love is the heart of Christianity; and that we are not to hurt one another, but to keep on loving, even to love our enemies. How do we do that? Jesus is constantly trying to teach us how to love, and in the end, lays down his life showing us. He gives us his body and blood to strengthen us for the hard work of nonviolent love.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus give specific instructions to his disciples on how to build a community of love and compassion. In this lesson, we are told to correct one another, gently and with love, and to help each other grow in compassion and love. The goal is to build a community of nonviolent love, where everyone forgives one another, where everyone loves one another, where everyone serves one another, where everyone trusts in the God of love, where we all keep on reconciling and becoming friends who follow Jesus together.
And Jesus says, if you do this, whenever you gather together in my name, I am present there in your midst. If you gather together and agree on what you want to ask God, he says, God will always grant your request. The Gospel today asks us: how can we love everyone around us more and more, and show compassion to the world? How can we help each other grow? How can we reconcile with one another more and more, and build a community of compassion and love? Do we believe that God is present here in our midst, and will grant us whatever we ask?
I think Jesus would certainly want us to respond with love, compassion and forgiveness to September 11th, instead of with vengeance, bombings and war. I trust that all of you are doing what the Gospel calls for, trying to love one another more and more. During these days, let’s pray intentionally for the whole world then, that terrorism, bombings, violence, vengeance, sanctions and war will end, that the world will begin to practice the way of love and reconciliation which Jesus commands.
If we dare ask this, in Jesus’ name, and keep on practicing it, we can trust that our prayer will be answered, because the good news today, as we come to the altar, is that Jesus is right here in our midst.