Finding light in the darkness

“… those family members showed me the other face of this attack, the other face of their grief: the power of love and remembrance. A remembrance that does not leave us empty and withdrawn. The name of so many loved ones are written around the towers’ footprints. We can see them, we can touch them, and we can never forget them.”
Pope Francis, interreligious meeting at Ground Zero, Sept. 25, 2015

The 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York; Arlington, Virginia; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is an occasion to reflect on tragedy with perspective. After 15 years, even young adults have only hazy memories of the attacks. Some wounds have healed, while others never will. But remembering 9/11 has the effect of bringing light out of darkness. We see communities rally amid tragedy and the goodness of healing in individual lives. Remembering the stories of that dark day keeps its memory in the light rather than allowing it to recede into forgotten darkness.

“Healing of memories” is a concept important for bringing light out of darkness, Bishop James Massa, an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn told Our Sunday Visitor. Then-Father Massa taught at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York, when the attacks occurred.

“We had seminarians who had relatives who were firefighters and who perished on 9/11,” Bishop Massa recalled.

In the days following the attacks, area parishes held an overwhelming number of funeral Masses, and the ordination class of 2001 went down to Ground Zero in shifts to bless body parts recovered from the rubble. Like so many, they tried to go back to some semblance of normal life. A class Father Massa happened to be teaching that semester was theology of religions, in which he and his students sought “to understand the diversity within Islam.”

The visit of President George W. Bush to a Washington, D.C., mosque six days after the attacks, Bishop Massa said, was “a very wonderful statement on the part of the president to make the distinction between the co-opting of the religion for hateful, ideological purposes and its more authentic expression, which is evident in so many mosques and Muslim communities throughout the country.”

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This is where healing of memory comes in, particularly in interreligious circles. Bishop Massa served as executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2005-2011 and as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a member of the Joint Working Group between the Holy See and the World Council of Churches. He noted the importance of talking about the painful memories of the past.

“We need to reread that history together so that there can be healing and understanding.” This requires “a self-examination always in how we speak of the other, how we represent the other — in our own preaching, in our own religious instruction, of our young people, of our adults,” he said. It’s also important “to acknowledge where religious differences become toxic, where faith lapses into an ideology that either demonizes the other or completely delegitimizes their search for God.”

The Diocese of Brooklyn was rocked recently by an act of interreligious violence in the shooting deaths of Imam Maulama Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Uddin, in Queens on Aug. 14.

“In the back of everyone’s mind was what had just happened in France, a religious leader had been killed,” Bishop Massa said, referencing the July 26 murder of French priest Father Jacques Hamel by terrorists while he was celebrating Mass. Bishop Massa noted that the killing of Father Hamel, “a bridge-builder between the Catholic community and the Muslim community,” prompted an outpouring from Muslim communities around France. In another instance of outpouring, the New York Board of Rabbis reached out to Bishop Massa after the shooting, and he helped coordinate with rabbis and ministers from other Christian communities an interfaith visit to the Imam Akonjee’s family, which took place Aug. 22. While Bishop Massa was unable to attend, he said the family found the visit very consoling.

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Bishop Massa

This wasn’t the first interfaith gathering planned by Bishop Massa. He was site coordinator for the interfaith meeting at Ground Zero during Pope Francis’ September 2015 visit to the United States. At that event, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh representatives came together to pray in each other’s presence.

Bishop Massa said the event made it “so evident” that the papacy of the post-Vatican II era is not only a sign of unity for Catholics but “a bridge-builder between cultures and religions.”

Which, he said, makes last September’s moments at Ground Zero all the more profound: “Pope Francis, meeting on the very site where religion had been misused to justify horrendous crime, making a huge counter statement, joining with other religious leader to pray for peace and to witness together for peace — I just can’t help but think that is an important moment in the history of our Church in the United States and beyond.”

Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.

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