During Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to the United States, he held a multi-faith prayer service at Ground Zero, which I attended. Of all his speeches and appearances during his visit, his words at the 9/11 Memorial were by far the most moving. On that sacred spot, the pope reminded us that the memory of those who lose their lives to senseless violence will not be lost when we “strive to be prophets not of tearing down but of building up, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of peace.”
Tears filled my eyes as I thought of all those good people who lost their lives going to work that day making their contribution to society. I was also so mindful of our collective failure, almost a paralysis, to settle conflicts through dialogue, which can prevent events such 9/11. A culture of dialogue holds out the possibility to offer solutions for issues affecting the common good, and it alleviates the pain that evil can afflict us with today.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was at a directors meeting of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) at its headquarters at 1011 First Avenue, in Manhattan, in full view of the World Trade Center. Some of my colleagues were from Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. What was to be a routine annual meeting turned out to be a day of horror as we witnessed the unthinkable burning and collapse of those two landmark towers.
I could see fear growing in the eyes of my foreign colleagues as we watched. These directors far from home could not believe what they were witnessing here in the United States, and 16 years later, we are still trying to make sense out of that gratuitous and gruesome act of violence.
What do we do when we see fear in the face of another and when we have fear within ourselves? When working with Israelis and Palestinians, I learned great gains can be made when we enter into a dialogue about the fears we share of each other.
Too often we build walls around our hearts, as though this will lessen the fear. And we as Christians can fail in our baptismal call to be courageous, enter into dialogue and even reveal the fractures within ourselves as well. When we cut ourselves off from our neighbors, and see them as threatening, and refuse to speak about what in them makes us fearful, there is little hope of reconciliation. We cauterize God’s love reflected in one another and curtail our participation in God’s grace. We avoid the risk without the consideration of the payoff.
What do we really risk when we enter into conversations with those whom we see as threatening? We need to take this risk today when the cultural conversation around our Muslim brothers and sisters has degenerated to the point of embracing “travel bans,” shutting out refugees and other endangered people, under a guise of keeping us safe. But does this keep us safe, or does it harm others and set the stage for further confrontation?
What Catholics can offer
In reality we all pay a price when fear rules the day. In times like these, Christians can witness to those treasures of our faith that aren’t proclaimed often enough, such as the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that the “Church also regards with esteem Muslims. They adore the one God ... merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth ... they await the day of judgment ... this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom” (Nostra Aetate, No. 3).
Selfless living, caring hospitality, creating a culture of encounter, building bridges and being together are ways we can live more fully our Christian vocation, encouraged by the words of Pope Francis, and participate more fully in God’s saving action in this world of ours.
Courageous openness, as opposed to isolation, is an attitude that allows Gospel values to take root in our lives, often in unexpected ways. When we learn more about the other, we learn more about who God is. Fear imprisons us; limits us. Walls confine us, fury and fiery speech taps into our basest feelings. Whenever we participate in dehumanizing rhetoric, we become prisoners of fear. No one dehumanizes another without giving a display of their own lack of humanity.
To be prophetic and courageous is in our DNA as Christians. This is not easily accepted by the faint of heart and weak of faith. We are human, and we often fail, but it is in the trying and striving that we thrive. When we open our hearts, we are capable of being better. We are then truly agents of peace, who truly love their neighbor as themselves. We can be the prophets of peace that Pope Francis called us to be at the 9/11 Memorial service.
We must continue to form ourselves and our young people in our teachings, learning through our encounters with others. Pope Francis set us on this course of peace during his visit. Now in a most profound way opportunity once again presents itself to live such a life that can prevent a remake of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bishop Denis J. Madden is a retired auxiliary bishop of Baltimore.