What does a visitor from a foreign but friendly country sense about the United States just days before the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks? G.K. Chesterton, one such visitor who came a long time ago, wrote that this was a "country with the soul of a church." America is baring her soul this week.
Chesterton would not have been surprised at what is happening on the streets of Manhattan and across the five boroughs.
I had the high honour of being at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, one of many priests at a solemn Mass with New York's archbishop, Edward Cardinal Egan.
"Perhaps we are, as a nation, more ready to pray than ever before," the cardinal observed, recalling how he spent most of that horrible day praying with people in the streets.
There will be a memorial Mass at St. Patrick's tomorrow. Across 5th Avenue at the magnificent Anglican Church of St. Thomas, there will be special services. Manhattan seems to have some house of worship on almost every block, and they will all be full tomorrow, as America prays. I will be in Brooklyn tomorrow morning, where all the Catholic parishes will be open throughout the day for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
There will be the solemn official memorials, in which America's sacred texts will be read the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address. But the hunger for the sacred will be satisfied in the sacred spaces of this sometimes all-too-profane city.
Ground Zero itself has become something of a religious shrine. The vast emptiness of those 16 acres is breathtaking. There is simply nothing there, except for the large cross, perfectly miraculously? fashioned out of the steel girders by the falling debris. The cross, discovered by the recovery workers, has now been blessed and mounted on a large concrete pedestal. The only visible remnant of the World Trade Center is the cross.
Frank Silecchia is the construction worker who found the cross. I met him on Sunday afternoon at St. Peter's Church, the oldest Catholic church in the United States, and one block north of Ground Zero.
"When I found the cross I fell to my knees and cried for about 20 minutes," said the burly concrete excavation specialist, who had volunteered to help with the rescue effort. "Other firemen were brought to their knees too, and we prayed around that cross."
Mr. Silecchia was the one who saw to it that the cross was preserved. He describes himself as a "God-fearing man," and I dare say that he could put the fear of God into someone if he so wished. He pestered the Mayor and the cardinal and anyone who would listen, and now the only thing that stands in Ground Zero is the cross.
Which, I suppose, is suitable enough in this nation with the soul of a church. Yet it is all the more fitting at Ground Zero.
What happened on September 11th was an act of terrorism with various political and social implications. Yet for the believer, the sin of murder was compounded by a great blasphemy. The name of God was invoked by the hijackers, seeking divine benediction for the slaughter of innocents. Muslims have since confessed their horror that God's name could be so defamed. Christians and Jews too, who profess belief in the same God, have condemned the blasphemy.
What does one do to undo the blasphemers' bloody work? Of course nothing can undo what has been done. The pain remains. Yet in the face of defamation, exultation is the commensurate response. Americans will gather tomorrow in countless churches and synagogues and mosques to pray for the dead and those who mourn them, to ask for courage and wisdom and peace. But before all that, their very act of prayer praises the name of God. The blasphemy is undone.
The cross at Ground Zero was not the work of any commission or agency, but the spontaneous act of firemen and policemen and God-fearing construction workers like Mr. Silecchia who saw in the twisted rubble a sign that blasphemy cannot be the final word at the World Trade Center.
St. Peter's Church is also where they laid the body of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan priest and fire chaplain who died after rushing downtown to attend to the wounded. His was the first body recovered on 9/11, and his death certificate is numbered 00001, the first registered victim.
So the blasphemy of the hijackers was answered immediately by the priest who rushed to invoke the name of the Lord. For those with the eyes of faith, such things are not coincidences but signs. The day before yesterday 200 pilgrims walked the three-mile route from Fr. Judge's fire station on West 31st Street to Ground Zero, singing hymns and whispering prayers.
Tomorrow, those 200 will be joined by 200 million more, who will stop and pray, remember and pray, weep and pray. They will pray, because that is what the soul does.
Rev. Raymond J. De Souza, "America is baring her soul ." National Post, (Canada) 19 September, 2002.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2002 National Post
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