The challenge today, 13 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks


By Michael M. Canaris

Last week while visiting my family in the States, I was able to attend Bishop Dennis Sullivan’s memorial Mass for 9/11 at Incarnation Parish in Mantua. I’m sure that I am not the only one who in one sense cannot possibly fathom that that horrible day was 13 years ago already; and in another, cannot quite remember what life was like before words like “jihad,” “Islamophobia,” and “Ground Zero” were common parlance.

Like Bishop Sullivan, I too have lived and worked in New York, and my father is a now-retired Federal Agent who was in Washington nearly round the clock in those months, so this anniversary is one that continues to touch my heart and soul deeply.

The bishop’s homily was particularly striking, and in some ways to me echoed Pope Francis’s willingness to express publicly his humility, humanity, and even interior struggles in the face of staggering evil, grief and loss.

The Gospel assigned to that day in this year’s liturgical cycle was by chance the same as the Thursday of the 23rd Week in Ordinary Time in 2001. That year, Sept. 11 fell on a Tuesday. So the bishop reflected on how two days after the tragedy, and now 13 years later, we are faced with these challenging words by Someone in whom we as Christians are called to place our unshakeable trust:

“To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you….

“Then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”

The bishop admitted that, deep in his heart, living such a mandate was then and continues now to be a challenge. But it is the vocation to which we as Christians are called. Real power is found not in the hatred and violence of that “day that will live in infamy,” but rather in the love and selflessness of which the human spirit is capable, captured in the final voicemails to spouses and children of those condemned to a death sentence for going to their office or boarding a plane that morning, or expressed in acts of heroism by first responders, colleagues, or even strangers watching those around them die.

How do we do more than parrot forgiveness in the wake of such suffering? Perhaps we aren’t capable of doing so perfectly yet. But our charge is unambiguous. And throughout America, even today, “hope springs eternal in the human breast,” as Alexander Pope once put it.

We know that the ferocious talons of animosity and fury have left incisive scars not only on our nation but even on the bolted doors to the innermost chambers of our deepest selves. The question remains what we do in response to the pain and trials we experience in our individual and collective pasts.

In both instances, do we steel ourselves for combat and retaliation, or instead still ourselves so that we can search for God not in the catastrophic tumult of the whirlwind, “which tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks to pieces,” but rather in the “small, whispering voice” (1 Kings 19) which follows it. Can we, like Mary, ponder the meaning of these things in our hearts and at least aspire to say always anew along with her: “The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name”?

In the sure and certain hope that the Virgin, as Stella Maris, continues to serve as our “refuge in grief, and guide of the wanderer here below,” Bishop Sullivan also blessed the bucolic grotto of Our Lady on the campus of the parish.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.