Mass of Remembrance of the Diocese of Trenton on the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001, St. Mary, Mother of God Church, New Monmouth, New Jersey
It was a day like many other days, that Tuesday morning in September 10 years ago today: bright sunshine, blue skies, and pleasant temperatures. It was one of those days people were happy to be alive. People in New York City, at the Pentagon, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, people on board early planes, were just getting their day started, probably not worried much about anything. It was September 11, 2001, just another day.
But then, at 8:46 am, the day changed. The world changed. History changed. We who were alive that morning changed at 8:46 am, September 11, 2001, and during the hours that followed. And ten years later, we who were alive and who were changed that morning will never forget that day.
Every generation seems to have a day like that. For our grandparents, our parents, perhaps for some few of us, December 7, 1941 was such a day. Things changed. For others, for many of us, November 22, 1963 and April 4, 1968 were such days. Things changed. But for every one of us here, September 11, 2001, will be the moment when this generation, intermingled with other generations, changed forever. Some say September 11 has defined our time.
And so we come together in this holy place to remember and to pray and to support one another ten years to the day later. We bow our heads again, we drop to our knees once more. We lift up in prayer those whose lives were lost, so many thousands, victims of terrorism and first responders. We lift up in prayer those whose losses can never be measured, so many more thousands as the lines of loves lost, are multiplied by families and friends and colleagues left behind to grieve and to mourn, some of you. We lift up to God our nation and everyone whose lives were changed that fateful day.
The twisted steel and crumbled concrete have been carted away, the dust and smoke and ash are long gone from New York City. The walls of the Pentagon have been restored. The grass has grown over that field in Pennsylvania. Through the misty visions and smoky memories of that September day, in the deepest parts of our very souls on this September day, God speaks his word to us once more. But his word is not easy to hear today. With hearts still burdened with grief, with minds still confused, with our national psyche still raw from these senseless acts of terrorism, our readings call us, as Catholic Christians, to forgiveness. Today we are confronted with and challenged by the central theme of Christianity: Jesus’ message of forgiveness. And in this message alone can we find comfort and peace.
The first reading from the Book of Sirach urges us to “let go” of our anger and desire for vengeance only to allow God to render justice as he sees fit. Sirach proclaims: “Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?” The message is ancient and clear and true and difficult. But it is God’s word to us.
“None of us lives or dies as his own master,” St. Paul reminds us in our second reading. That fact of life is always in our subconscious minds but occasions like the experience of 9/11, bring it home in a most dramatic way. We stood on the edge of hell on 9/11 and looked into its bowels and smelled the acrid smoke of pure evil but we also saw something else, something different rise from dust: those who linked arms, without regard to color or religion or place of origin to reach out, to save and to embrace their fellow man. “None of us lives for oneself and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” And Christ’s words echo in our ears: “Whatever you do to or for the least of my brethren, you do to or for me.” And so it was that September morning, 10 years ago, and 2,000 years before it. And so it is today.
As hard as it was for first and second and third responders to pull the living and the dead from the utter destruction of those first hours and in the days and weeks after that plane hit the first tower, the hardest part was yet to come as weeks became months and months, years. The Gospel of St. Matthew brings that hardest part to light. “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him, as many as seven times? Jesus answered, ‘not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
Today is a day to remember and what we recall is, perhaps, the most horrible memory that will be borne by this generation --- please God there will never be another like it. But in our memory of something so painful and of so great a wound upon our nation’s heart and soul and body, it is to that wounded heart and soul and body that the Gospel speaks today, “not seven times” but over and over and over again, “seventy-seven times.” It is not just time that heals all wounds --- whether 10 or 50 years have passed. Some things we will never forget but it is only forgiveness that brings healing to our wounds, even those that leave a scar. And it is healing that brings hope, even when terror threatens us still. And it is hope that leads us to love and to live again, today tomorrow, “seventy-seven times” and forever.
The greatest gift, the most difficult gift; the greatest offering, the most difficult offering that we could give in memory of those who gave their lives on September 11 is to pray with Jesus at the moment of his own greatest and most difficult suffering on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Someone said to me recently that this is a difficult message for “mere mortals” to accept. That is true. But we, mere mortals, are called by Christ to immortality and his message of forgiveness, like the Cross itself, is the path he gives to immortality and life eternal.
Every generation, whether it has suffered a December 7, or a November 22, or an April 4, or a September 11, must forgive from the heart and heal and hope and love. And every generation, from the first to the last, must give an account of that forgiveness and healing and hope and love to the Lord who holds us in his arms today as we remember.
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton