September 11th Reflection
On September 12th, 2001, this same, exact gospel passage was read in this very gym as part of a prayer service in response to the tragic events of the previous day. We gathered that morning ten years ago—as communities did all over this country—to comfort each other and to pray for healing and peace. We do the same today.
Early in the morning of the previous day, 9/11/2001, my wife and I were in the car driving here to Mitty when we heard on the radio the disturbing news that an airliner had flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. We assumed initially, as did most Americans, that this was just a tragic accident. Within a short time later, however, I was reading the following announcement over the P.A at Mitty: “Good morning. As I am sure all of you are aware by this point in time, there apparently have been a number of terrorist attacks perpetrated in our country this morning. Most dramatically, the towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been crashed into by planes that were apparently hijacked. As a community of hope, peace, and compassion, let us—first of all—stop right now and observe a period of silence and pray for the many victims of these tragedies and their families.” After a short period of absolute silence on campus, I invited our community to listen to Psalm 23’s comforting words and to pray for peace.... This was, indeed, an almost surreal day filled with horrific images and a mixture of feelings: shock, sadness, fear, anger.
Later in the morning, after the reality of the day’s events had become clearer, I informed the Mitty community that the school would remain open. There were two reasons for this decision. First: this was a very safe place. Second: we were a community of faith, and in times of tragedy it is essential to be in a community that can pull together and respond in faith and with mutual support.
I realize as I recall the vivid details of those days 10 years ago that many of you have vivid memories of your own: where you were when you first heard the news, how you tried to make contact with your family, how you reacted when seeing over and over again the images that flashed across the TV screen. I also realize that, because many of you students were very young children then, you may not have such memories. To some of you, this may seem more like ancient history. Nevertheless, It is important for you now as young adults to stop and realize that over the past ten years we have all gained some perspective that only time provides. We realize now that the world, in many ways, changed dramatically on 9/11/2001. Terrorism was not only “over there” but here in our country as well. Like it or not, we felt more vulnerable than before. We lost our innocence, and we had our personal freedom limited as travel and assembly restrictions became a given. In many cases we had our faith shaken as we were put on notice that bad things do, indeed, happen to good people.
So why meet today, ten years later, in this same gym? Really, I think for many of the same reasons we gathered then: first, to pray for the families and friends of the victims who continue to grieve for their lost loved ones. Their pain is constant. Their lives have been forever changed. Let us pray for their comfort and peace. We also gathered then (and now) to pray in thanksgiving for the police officers, paramedics, and fire fighters who sacrificed their lives in an attempt to save others. As the words of the opening song vividly recall, these first responders died while going “up the stairs, into the fire.” When every human impulse would normally send one scurrying down the stairs toward the exits and out to the safety of the streets, on this day that “the sky was falling and streaked with blood” these heroes went “up the stairs, into the fire, where love and duty called them someplace higher.” As human beings, as people of faith, we should all not only be grateful to these men and women; we should also find tremendous hope that human beings are capable of such courage, sacrifice, and love.
Late in the evening of 9/11, as I was beginning to prepare my remarks for the following morning’s prayer service, I received a very powerful email from a junior at Mitty.
“Hi Mr. Brosnan, My name is Gabby Salerno. I'm a junior at Mitty. My sister who is currently living in Manhattan actually worked at the WTC at one point, so this was a personal issue to her as well the rest of my family and me. Nothing happened to her, but many of her former coworkers were killed. I decided to write to you because, just like everyone else, I'm deeply saddened, scared, and depressed because of what happened to our country. In the midst of my depression and frustration, I came to a realization. I just thought I'd share it with you...
So many things went through my mind today. I thought about what the world is coming to. I questioned the cliché of having faith in humanity. I imagined what it would be like to tell our children the story of September 11th, 2001. The generations to come are definitely going to be learning about this pivotal moment in our history as Americans. I mourned for the victims. I felt unsafe, angry, sad, and scared. I saw that everyone was feeling the same way. For some reason, it all boiled down to one question: Where was God during all of this?”
I thought to myself, “that’s a good question.” And as the principal of a Catholic school, I thought it important to try to respond to that question. So this became the focus of my reflection that morning of September 12th when we gathered in this gym and listened to the gospel passage that Mr. Herrera just read.
Borrowing generously from my reflection of 10 years ago, let me invite us all this morning to take this occasion on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to take stock of our faith. To ask a few tough questions about what we believe, how we cope with the reality of pain and tragedy that we remember today, and where we find hope.
On the morning of September 12th, 2001, perhaps more than any other day we had known in our lifetimes, it was easy to put ourselves in the place of the disciples in the gospel story we just heard. “Suddenly a strong wind blew down on the lake, and the boat began to fill with water, so that they were all in great danger. The disciples went to Jesus and woke him up saying, “Master, Master! We are about to die!” The tragic events of 9/11 caused many of us to feel that we too were in great danger. We saw horrifying images over and over again on the TV screen depicting scenes of death and destruction. We could only imagine the sense of sheer terror that each individual must have felt (while on an airplane or in a burning, high-story building) when she or he came to face the reality of those words, “We are about to die.”
On that morning of September 12th, thousands were dead. Countless numbers of families are grieving the loss of loved ones. The terror the victims experienced was real. And many people were probably thinking (as junior Gabby Salerno), So where was our God in all this? Where was the Jesus in our story to be awakened so that he could save us from this danger and restore “great calm?”
Perhaps you have felt at times that all this praying and talk of God—which you hear all the time around here—is just so much garbage. After all, if God really does exist, why do bad things happen to good people? Why do innocent children suffer and die? Why do 300 firefighters trying their best to save the lives of others, lose their own lives in the process?
Fully admitting I don’t have the answers to all these questions for you, let me offer this perspective. Evil does exist. Sinfulness is real; we encounter it in big and small ways. After all, we know at times that we can be sinful people. We are capable of meanness, pettiness, even cruelty. But we also know that we are able to forgive offenses, we can be incredibly generous, we can and do comfort others in their times of need. We have the capacity to love. And we also are capable of personal sacrifice for the well being of others (as the type of sacrifice exhibited by hundreds of first responders, and, I am sure, countless other heroes in the midst of the 9/11 tragedy.)
I believe that Jesus, the God of our faith, entered this world not to be some kind of superstar warrior to defeat all the evil forces around us. He entered this world, as we do, as a tiny baby. He died, as we will also. In fact, he died a very painful human death. In between, our God came to teach us how to live with gracefulness and presence to one another. He came to walk with us, in community, when we experience pain and grief. He came to show us that, even in the midst of great darkness and despair, we can find light and hope. Our God is a being who proclaims with absolute certainty that, ultimately, love is more powerful than hate and that death is not the end; resurrection is real.
Many of us perhaps would prefer a God not to walk with us, but to walk out in front clearing out all the ugly messes so we experience no pain. If this superstar image of God is the one in whom we have placed our faith, then what happens when “our boat fills with water, we’re in great danger and about to die?” We’re lost. “Where is your faith?” says Jesus to his disciples. Where is our faith?
I would invite you this morning to place your faith not in Jesus, the superstar, but in Jesus, who is present when two or more are gathered in his name. Place your faith in a God who doesn’t necessarily prevent all evil from befalling us but who teaches us the following:
‐‐You, too can walk with others in their time of grief, as I did on the Road to Emmaus;
‐‐You, too, have the power to transform your friends into more caring people, as I did with Peter and Mary Magdalene;
‐‐You, too have the ability to make this a more just world, as I tried to do and as Paul did after me;
‐‐You, too, have the power to forgive, even as I did on the cross.
Where is our faith? If our faith is in a God of compassion, hope, and love; if our faith is in a God found in the midst of community present to one another, then that faith is very much alive today.
So, in thanksgiving for those who lost their lives 10 years ago and for the person of Jesus who models the best in human action, let our prayer today be this:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love