5 years after 9-11, survivors ask ‘why’ of attack that is still an open wound
‘Naturally, God is there’
The passage of time has not reduced the immediacy of the most painful question: Why? It was the question the rescue workers asked most frequently of my brother Jesuits while we were ministering at Ground Zero. Why would God permit this to happen? In essence, they were asking the same question that has preoccupied saints, theologians, philosophers and other Christians for centuries (the problem of evil or theodicy): How could a good God allow evil?
For Rev. David Baratelli, a Port Authority chaplain who also serves at St. John’s Byzantine Catholic Church in Bayonne, N.J. , the day’s grief was matched by the goodness he witnessed around him. One day, after Father Baratelli finished celebrating Mass at a nearby chapel, a police lieutenant told him that some of the workers had not been able to receive Communion that day. So Father Baratelli grabbed a large ciborium and walked into the pile of rubble. “All of these cops and firefighters saw me coming,” he recalled with emotion. “And they took off their helmets and with the greatest devotion received the Eucharist.”
Father Baratelli said he was “captured” by the thought that God would have his way, that God’s way is one of goodness, and that God would triumph by the virtue of the good. “I have to believe that Christ was present in that Eucharist and that he was helping those people.”
For others, the grief remains raw. Anthony and Maryann, who live in northern New Jersey, were told on Sept. 11 that their son, Anthony Jr., a police officer with the Port Authority, “never came out” of the towers. His father said, “Naturally I was mad. He was a good boy, and they never recovered the body. You pray that they might discover him so that we could just bury him.”
The devout Catholic couple found solace from the local parish priests, who rushed to their house to pray with them after the tragedy, and from Catholic Charities. “They were terrific. I can’t say enough about them,” said Anthony. Once a week the two visit a local shrine to St. Joseph in Stirling, N.J., to pray for their son, who was 47 at his death. “I feel the closeness of my son there, and naturally God is there,” said Anthony.
He is not angry with God. “I say my prayers for my son and I’m happy I can pray for him. But what can you say? There’s nothing you can say.” His comment reminded me of the observation from some commentators on the Holocaust, that the best response to overwhelming tragedy is often silence.
The fifth-year anniversary is doubly poignant for Steve, 36, who lost his wife, an employee of a firm with offices at One World Trade Center. The two were married exactly one month earlier, on Aug. 11, 2001. In Washington, D.C., on a business trip that day, Steve heard the news of the attack from a taxicab radio, went into a nearby restaurant and saw the second plane slam into the South Tower. After the tragedy, he stayed with friends for a month.
Steve (not his real name) is an active parishioner of St. Ignatius Loyola Church in New York City, which he had attended with his wife before her death. Like Anthony and Maryann, he did not feel abandoned by God. And like Joe Lauria, he understood the event as a “man-made” tragedy. But at the same time Steve does not think this event was part of God’s plan. “I don’t believe things happen for a reason,” he said.
‘It’s only fair to give back’
Mass provides more comfort for Steve now. He admits that this might have as much to do with the fact that attending Mass was something he and his wife used to enjoy doing together. But he has changed, Steve said. He is trying to become a “better person,” trying to be closer to his wife’s family, trying not to be as judgmental and trying to be more open with people. The tragedy has lent his life more perspective, he believes.
“It’s understanding what matters and what doesn’t,” he said. In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, Steve became politically active, traveling to Capitol Hill with family members of victims. Today he laments that the country seems to have lost the feeling of unity that existed immediately after 9/11.
“It makes you wish for what we were back then – with all the bipartisanship and everyone not stuck up on petty differences. I’m amazed that we’re still dealing with things like same-sex marriage and the flag-burning amendment, when there are more important issues.”
When I asked how long he felt that spirit of unity existed in the country, he was blunt: “About six months.”
When Joe, the New York City firefighter, also lamented the loss of the common spirit that existed at Ground Zero, I felt as if I knew something of what he meant. During the few weeks I worked there, I remember walking north from the site one day and hearing people applaud. After I looked around and saw no firefighters or police officers, I asked a Jesuit who was walking ...
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See also this week’s America book reviews including those for “A Time to Remember” on the book Let’s Face It: Years of Living, Loving and Learning, by Kirk Douglas, “Communal Ecstasy!” on the book Dancing in the Streets:A History of Collective Joy, by Barbara Ehrenreich “Living to Tell …” on the book Infidel, by Infidel Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
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Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the May 28, 2007, issue of America, the Catholic weekly magazine (www.americamagazine.org). Copyright © 2007 by America Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved. For subscription information, visit www.americamagazine.org or call 800-627-9533.
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