Memorial Mass + September 11, 2015 + St Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL
Isaiah 43, 1-4 + Psalm XXX + 1 Peter 2, 20-25 + Luke 24, 13-35
This is Memorial Mass has become an annual tradition at St Peter the Apostle Church where a piece of steal from the World Trade Center is kept as a relic out of respect for the lives lost on that day. Many members of this parish come from New York and New Jersey, and many of them have families there affected by the attack on the World Trade Center. Rescue workers from southwest Florida were among the first to arrive and assist in the rescue and search for the dead. At this Mass members of the East Naples/Golden Gate Fire Department and the Collier County Police and Sheriff’s deptuties are in attendance for the prayers and support of the local community in thanksgiving for the many ways they risk their lives everyday for the safety of the local citizens. So this Mass is more than a Memorial because of a tragedy in our past. It is also an occasion to bring the men and women who work for public safety before God’s altar to be blessed by the grateful prayers of those in attendance.
September 11, 2001 I was in Louisville, Kentucky. That evening I was to deliver the annual Dolle Lecture at St Meinrad Seminary across the river in Indiana. It is a lecture series focused on the expression of Christianity in Religious Art and Church Architecture. I had spent the night with a priest friend who was going to drive me over to the Seminary later in the day. He shouted up the steps of the house for me to come down immediately, and I came down to find him staring in disbelief at the first images of the terrorist attack in New York City followed by reports and images of the attack on the Pentagon. About noon as we sat there losing all track of time a call came from the seminary asking if I felt like continuing with the lecture. I have no idea how I responded, but the people responsible for the lecture felt that by evening the students would need something different to think about and a reason to get away from the television. I gave the lecture about how art and architecture reveal something of our faith with images of those buildings coming down wondering what that image would reveal about our faith. We all know where we were when things like this happen.
In 1995 I had just come into the back door of the Rectory at the Cathedral of Oklahoma City after checking to make sure that my associate had remembered to celebrate the 9:00 am Mass. I took two steps into the hall when the house shook from a very loud explosion. Staff members in the front of the house began to shout and we ran into the parking lot to see what had happened. With a rising cloud of smoke coming from the skyline of downtown three miles away, we ran to a television in the kitchen already showing the scene because the morning traffic helicopters were still in the area. Immediately I got in my car and headed to the University Medical Center sure that help would be needed. It was. Only in the late afternoon did we have any idea what had happened. Shortly after noon, the Police moved the emergency room personnel downtown to a triage center and me with them. I stood on a street corner for the rest of the day praying and blessing rescue workers and anointing the injured and the bodies of the dead as they were carried past. Police and Fire personnel would stop and ask for a blessing.
Like the disciples who witnessed the tragic death of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, we all stumbled through those days in numbed silence, but always inside there was a question. For a long time on that street corner in 1995 I stood and wondered, “Why?” “Why here? Why today? Why would anyone do this? Why did this happen?” Questions always reveal something about the one who asks. Every question reveals our biases, our notions of truth, our convictions about what is important, and the first thing revealed is that we do not know everything in spite of the fact that we often wish we did and sometimes act as though we do. One of the remarkable things that happened to us all that day was that we reached out for others and did not want to be alone like those disciples who together reached out to a stranger walking along with them. We tell their story today because it is our story as well. Stunned and heartbroken disciples sit down in sad fellowship to find in their midst this companion who touches their pain, opens their eyes, and restores their hope. The victim of violence is victorious, and death does not have the last word. Hatred does not prevail nor overcome goodness.
No time is acceptable for tragedy. No place should be a home for violence. No living heart has room for hatred. No life can survive anger. Like those disciples we sit down today and beg the Lord, our companion, to stay with us, to heal us by the comfort of his presence, and to keep us from the sin of hatred. There was a miracle on April 19, 1995 repeated again on September 11, 2001. The miracle was that cowardice and hatred were overcome by courage and love. What inhuman evil a handful of wild angry men wrought by their violent acts was completely overwhelmed by the bravery, selflessness, and love shown by thousands of rescue workers and bystanders who did not stand and watch, but dug in and lifted up.
What I learned on the corner of 5th and Harvey Streets on April 19, 1995 was that the question “Why” was the wrong question. The next day when assigned a spot in the lower level of that collapsed building watching men and women crawl through twisted rebar and slabs of broken concrete searching for people they did not even know was that there was a better question: one that did have an answer. The question to ask in the face of these tragedies we have endured and survived is not, “Why?” The real question has two parts: “What does it mean?” and “What are we going to become because of this?” These are the questions that eventually those men at Emmaus and their friends back in Jerusalem began to ask, and because of this, their shaky and doubtful faith brought them healing and understanding, courage and wisdom: the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
What we remember today must be understood in the context of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our prayer today and every day must be the prayer of Jesus Christ: “Father, Forgive them.” At the same time we must remember also that he taught us to pray: “Deliver us from evil” for the greatest evil of all will be for us to become like the terrorists and bombers who still challenge our faith and seek to dim the Light of Christ that must shine in our hearts. They cannot take this from us or the violence of Calvary will have been for nothing. To that same Holy Spirit who taught and guided the disciples through that first tragedy and challenge to faith we must also pray. “Guide with your wisdom those who care for the injured everywhere, and by your tender love, harden not our hearts.” Amen.