By MSGR. DANIEL O’CONNOR, Commentary | Published September 21, 2006
This sermon was delivered at the Mass of Remembrance, Sept. 11, 2006, at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell.
My Dear Friends in Christ:
We recall this evening one of those moments in our lives about which we can remember every detail: where we were, what we were doing, who was with us, what our reaction was.
Another, my first, was on Dec. 7, 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I was 9 years old, listening with my brother and sister to a radio mystery show called “The Shadow,” whose hero, with the power to be invisible, fought the forces of evil. (This was, of course, long before television.) The show came on at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and we never missed it. This Sunday the show was interrupted by the announcement of the attack on our Pacific fleet, its destruction, and an enormous loss of life. Despite my age, with no more information than this, I knew something momentous had happened that would change all of our lives. There would be a long war, and many more thousands would die.
It was the same on 9/11. I was in the rectory at St. Jude’s, passing from the kitchen to my office. The television was on, and the picture showed a single tower of the World Trade Center burning. I paused and stared at the screen, just in time to see the second tower struck, and the enormous ball of flame.
Like you, I could not tear myself away from the set that morning, as we witnessed the incredible series of events: the collapse of one tower, then the other; the tidal wave of smoke that cascaded through the streets of lower Manhattan; people running in terror, gasping for breath, fear in their eyes. I can still recall one scene of a man walking away from the scene slowly, his head and shoulders covered with his suit coat, his face gray with ashes. Since then, whenever I read of Job covering himself with sackcloth and ashes, that image comes to mind.
We did not know then who the enemy was, or where he had come from—that would take days to be uncovered—but we knew one thing with certainty: We were again at war, it would be a long and terrible war, and many more thousands would die.
Five years later we know much more: who our enemy is, why they hate us, how they train and fight. We have struck back, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. There have been other attacks, in Spain and England, and many more plots.
The war is not going well. More elections are coming up, and as Americans do in our democracy, we shall elect the leaders we wish to conduct the war in the years ahead. We know it will be a long war. For over 30 years our foe planned their attacks. I suspect that it will take another 30 years to bring it to some kind of conclusion. We face an evil force, one that hates us implacably, and wants to destroy us and our way of life. They have told us that God wants this, and they wage holy war in his name.
What are we to make of all this? There are many answers, coming from many different sources. One, for persons of faith, is the Scriptures. I suggest that we turn to the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament.
This is a puzzling book for most Catholics, difficult to understand, filled as it is with symbols, numbers, and poetic imagery. We are warned not to take it literally, as many do, searching for exact dates, and times, and names of our enemies.
But read correctly, with the Church, we can understand it for what it is: a message of hope to the Church in the time of great distress. It was composed late in the first century during the persecution under the Roman emperor Domitian. He sought to crush the Church by attacking its leaders. Many apostatized, abandoning their faith publicly to save their lives. The author, John the Seer, as he is known, writes from exile, urging his followers to be faithful no matter what the cost, even death itself. In a panorama of powerful visions he portrays the struggle that is taking place, and the victory that awaits those who are faithful.
In one vision he describes the suffering that people must endure in this world, not just persecution, but all the woes and calamities that humankind is heir to: war, famine, pestilence and death—the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. We recall the image in part:
“When the Lamb broke open the second seal I heard the second living creature cry out: ‘Come forward!’ Another horse came forward, a red one. Its rider was given power to rob the earth of peace, by allowing men to slaughter one another. For this he was given a large sword.” (Rev 6:3-4)
This is the woe we face again today. It is a different kind of war than we have fought before, against a stealthy enemy who plots in shadow, like a fire that burns slowly behind the walls of a building for hours and then breaks out. On 9/11 that fire burst out in a cataclysm of flame and destruction and death. Today, on the fifth anniversary of that day, we feel the pain once more, as we recall its sights and emotions.
When will this war end and how? John the Seer has no answer to those questions. But I do believe he has something to say to us. The Book of Revelation is a message of hope, and John frames that hope in another series of visions, visions of heaven, visions of the victory that awaits those who are faithful to the end:
“Then I saw new heavens and a new earth. The former heavens and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no longer. I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as a bride prepared to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne cry out: ‘This is God’s dwelling among men. He shall dwell with them and they shall be his people and he shall be their God who is always with them. He shall wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the former world has passed away.’” (Rev 21:1-4)
Is this enough? Can these words be any consolation to those who lost loved ones on 9/11—in the Twin Towers, or at the Pentagon, or those who perished in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania? Are they consolation for those who have lost a son or daughter or parent in Afghanistan and Iraq?
I, who have lost no loved one, cannot say. But for me, and I think for any believer, those words are helpful. Father Raymond Brown, the preeminent Catholic Scripture scholar of our times, said of the Book of Revelation, that the book “ … attests forcefully that at every moment of human history, even the most desperate moment that causes people to lose hope, that God is present. The Lamb standing as though slain is the ultimate guarantee of God’s victorious care and deliverance.” That message, for me, gives consolation and hope. In this time of pain and suffering, has the world anything better to offer?
As Catholics, there is one other thing we can note today. The Church and Islam have warred against each other as far back as the eighth century, the time of the First Crusade. Most often the two religions have co-existed in peace, even friendship. But almost from the beginning a militant branch of Islam has advocated spreading their faith by the sword, and did so as their armies swept across Palestine, North Africa, Byzantium, even to the borders of Europe. It is this militant branch of Islam that threatens us again today, thus the use of the words “infidels” and “Crusaders” in their tirades against us.
One of the most crucial of those battles was fought in the Gulf of Lepanto in 1517. Two fleets, one Christian, the other Turkish, waged an epic sea battle, with the future of Western civilization at stake. On the eve of battle Pope Pius V implored the Rosary Fraternities of Rome to pray the rosary continuously, seeking through their prayers the help of the Blessed Mother. On Oct. 7 the Christian armada won a great victory. When the news reached Rome, Pope Pius V in thanksgiving designated that date as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Three centuries later the American bishops, gathered in council in Baltimore, petitioned Rome successfully to name Our Blessed Mother, under her title of the Immaculate Conception, to be the patroness of the United States.
Tonight I suggest that each one of us here pray the rosary daily. It was our Blessed Mother’s request at Lourdes, and again at Fatima, that we do so. It is what our parents did throughout the long years of World War I and II, of the wars in Korea and Viet Nam. It is what each of us can do in this present war: to pray that through the intercession of Mary, the war may soon end, and the people of all nations may know peace again.
Msgr. Daniel O’Connor has been a priest of the archdiocese for the past 45 years, now retired. He also served simultaneously for over 25 years as a chaplain in the Army Reserves, retiring from that role in 1992.