Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, children’s television icon Fred Rogers shared this insight from his mother: “Always look for the helpers.” These helpers were on full display following the tragic event, including numerous police and firefighters in New York — many of them Catholics — who risked their lives without hesitation in the service of rescuing others.
After the attack of 9/11, the world saw the people of the United States come together in an overwhelming show of unity, generosity and goodwill. We saw in each other the potential for goodness. We saw the country we wanted to be. But it was sadly fleeting. Our national discourse quickly reverted to one of acrimony and division. And 15 years later, we feel less united and more polarized than ever.
This division is particularly on display in the midst of an election season where rhetoric suggests people are barely willing to countenance that an opposing viewpoint has the right to exist, let alone be engaged in an effort to work toward solutions to challenging issues. It’s a rancorous division that focuses and wants to believe the worst in other people, not the best — and in which we seem to refuse that the people around us are our neighbors, let alone neighbors we are called to love.
But this isn’t the case everywhere. In communities, such as those devastated by flooding recently in Louisiana, we have examples of “neighbors helping neighbors,” as Heath Clark, a volunteer firefighter in Louisiana said. “That’s the Cajun way.” Such examples offer a reminder of the goodness of individuals and that we are able to live up to a higher calling.
In the wake of another tragedy, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston offered a stark assessment: “We must build a civilization of love, or there will be no civilization at all.”
Catholics have a particular responsibility to put such loving witness into action, to build a civilization of love. This begins in prayer — particularly in the sacrifice of the Mass — that inspires us to seek out the will of God in all things. From prayer flows concrete action, in which we live out Jesus’ commandment to “love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples …” (Jn 34-35).
Two who lived out this concrete action were Sisters Paula Merrill and Margaret Held, the nuns who were recently killed in Mississippi, whose ministry was to bring health care to poor people.
These sisters also remind us that we don’t have to wait for a great tragedy to dedicate our lives to self-sacrificing service — and that we should never delay in working for a better world.
After all, we don’t know the day or the hour. And shocking tragedies only reaffirm this uncertainty. We don’t know if we have the luxury of waiting to make a better world.
Fifteen years after 9/11, our country should pause and reflect not only on the day, but on the days after. We should pray for those who died and for those still struggling to find peace. But we should also pray to remember and even experience that sense of unity and care for one another. And we should act accordingly. We should prayerfully model action that reflects what both Jesus and Mr. Rogers told us, that we are all neighbors. Let us all help, serve and love our neighbors.
Editorial Board: Scot Landry, chief mission officer; Greg Willits, editorial director; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor