I was here in Washington together with 50 other bishops from around the United States for an annual meeting. Upon hearing news of the attack, we adjourned and did what the Church does in such moments — the only thing the Church can do. We prayed. We walked from our conference building to the Basilica of the National Shrine where we all joined in the celebration of the Eucharist.
We were not alone. The basilica was filled. Thousands of students gathered at the Mass.
We were not surprised by the number of people who came to church 10 years ago to pray at a time of deep national sadness and anxiety and to join in solidarity with those who had died, been injured or lost loved ones in the terrorist attack on our country. There was an instinctive need on the part of all of us to stand with each other before God. Hence, houses of worship were filled with souls seeking solace – including many, many young people.
It was a grace-filled moment for all of us — certainly not the tragedy itself but the re-awakening of our need for God. This is, as well, on the anniversary of the attack, a time for us to come to hear all over again what Jesus has to say — what he has to tell us about our human condition and how we are to deal with moments like 9/11 and its enduring memory.
Jesus offers us God’s response to our questions about life and how we are to live, how we are to make our way through life, what the purpose and goal of life is and how we should make choices along the way. When we listen to the consoling yet challenging words of Jesus we find not just an ethical or moral system, but a whole vision of the purpose of life. Jesus came to reveal to us who his Father is, and therefore who we are. As we come to know our relationship to God, we come to know our role in life.
Perhaps the reason Jesus attracted so many followers in his lifetime was the beauty of his message — the simplicity of his words and the profound option he places before everyone who would seek to hear, listen to and follow him.
Over the past decade we have listened as government officials and commentators in the media spoke about the origins of these terrorist attacks and these violent acts against innocent life. Almost all of the discussion focused on who is responsible and where they might be found. This is a legitimate discussion because we are dealing with an attack not only against our nation but the very principles on which it rests.
But there is another response to the question: “What is the origin of this attack?”
Jesus offers us an answer not only to this great act of violence — now known simply as 9/11 — but also to the very root and source of all such manifestations of hatred.
All violent acts of injustice, acts of destruction, and the taking of innocent life find their origin in the attitudes of the human heart. Evil dwells within. Jesus told us it is not what enters in from outside that defiles a person but the things that come from within are what defile (Mark 7:15).
The great cosmic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, between peace and war, between harmony and violence, between love and hatred, begins first in each human heart, is waged there – and true peace depends on the outcome.
The Beatitudes draw the demanding picture that Jesus set before us of a world of peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst for holiness, justice, mercy, compassion and consolation. To the extent that each one of us participates in that effort, to that extent, is there just a little bit more light, peace, harmony and love in the world.
We are to live in solidarity with one another recognizing that only if we put on the “new person” — this new man or new woman in Christ — is there any hope for peace.
Justice will be served. Violence must be eliminated and those who perpetrate it must be sought out and brought to justice. All of this remains beyond you and me.
What does not remain outside us, and what we can do, is renew our own personal commitment to bring that peace to our world, our community, our families, our lives – peace that is rooted in God’s plan and in that justice to which he calls all of us.
Light can win out over darkness. Truth will triumph over falsehood. Love does conquer hatred. What is needed is the commitment of all of us to that basic human solidarity that banishes those things that are sources of division: ethnic and racial bias, religious bigotry, political opportunism.
The Sept. 11 tragedy will haunt America for a long time. A newspaper reporter asked me at the end of one of our prayer services if I thought anything good could come out of such a terrible experience. I replied, and the more I think of it the more I am convinced of the reply, “If we are all brought closer to God and examine our own relationship with God as a result of this experience, all of those who died will not have given up their lives in vain. God can bring good out of the most evil situations.”
For 2,000 years we have held up the cross to see in Christ not only an example of self-giving love for others but the answer to the most profound human questions:
“What is the purpose of life?” “How shall I live?” “What values should guide my steps – and actions?”
It is hard to see victory in the broken body of Christ on the cross.
And yet two millennia later his voice continues to exert the strongest force for good in our world. “Love one another as I have loved you.” “If you would be my disciple take up your cross and follow me.”
Around us in this community are people of many national heritages, ethnic traditions and religious convictions. Jewish, Muslim, Christian religious convictions call us to peace, harmony, unity and solidarity.
We must be firm in our own resolve to stand by our principles, to live by our convictions and to follow our own teaching and never allow evil and hatred to overwhelm us.
Can this be done? We are here are we not? We know deep down in our hearts that we shall overcome.
As we lift high the cross today the message we hear is do not let evil overwhelm you.
Do not let the darkness extinguish the light. Do not let hatred smother love. Yes, we can be victorious.
Yes, we can win in the struggle to let God’s kingdom of truth, justice, understanding, compassion, kindness and love win out here and around the world.
It all begins with each one of us.
As we go out from this Mass today we do so with the resolve that has sustained us for this past decade and offers consolation to those who have lost brave loved ones—our servicemen and women—in the struggle against hatred, violence and evil.
We will stand with each other, we will support one another, we will care for one another and we will build here in our community a resolve so strong, rooted in such justice and committed to such love that no terrorist, no atrocity, no horror can ever overwhelm us.
This commemoration offers us, as the heralds of that message, an occasion to renew our firm commitment never to lose faith that God remains with us, that God can bring good out of evil and that we, in turn, are called to a human solidarity that reflects God’s love for all of us.
The 9/11 commemoration can be a time to renew in our own hearts, even in the face of such evil, that Jesus reminds us there is another way.
Can we do this? Of course we can. That’s why we are here – to stand before our God who will always stand with us.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the Archbishop of Washington.