Cardinal Joseph Tobin’s homily from 9/11 anniversary Mass at cathedral

Twentieth Anniversary of 9/11
Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart
September 8, 2021

My Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

What are you remembering this afternoon? Together with so many around the world, we can recall exactly where we were on that sun-dappled Tuesday morning in early September two decades ago. Even at that distance, it is not difficult to taste the fear, feel the confusion, rekindle the fiery anger that washed over the nation as the events of September 11, 2001, unfolded. The soul-chilling sight of troops in full battle dress patrolling airports and train stations, as well as armed vehicles on the streets are fresh, even a generation later.

Whom are you remembering this afternoon? Here, 9/11 was more than a national tragedy for the people. Here, the carnage was personal. So many families along the Morristown, Northeast Corridor, and Raritan lines, parents, grandparents, siblings and fiancées in communities that necklace the Parkway and Turnpike, had no idea that morning they were saying a final goodbye to someone whose loss would rip out their hearts. In the days that followed, the fire and smoke that wreathed the Towers spewed toxins that would continue to kill long after the rubble had been cleared away.

Perhaps your memories go beyond Archdiocese or nation, and you mourn the young men and women who died or were mutilated on the battlefields of the last 20 years. Perhaps you can glimpse the enormous tsunami of violence that the events of 9/11 unleashed, claiming hundreds of thousands of children, women and men. Father Thomas Merton observed that there is only one winner in war. The winner is not justice, not liberty, not Christian truth. The winner is war itself.

Today the Word of God invites us to remember. Its message is subtle, perhaps easy to miss. Let me try to introduce that message with a story that remembers another time, another place.

Pane e vino (“Bread and Wine”) is a novel published a few years before the onset of World War II. The setting is Italy and in one memorable scene, a young woman cries desperately to her parish priest: what can we do? The machinery of death is in motion, the armies of the night are on the march. After pondering her anguish, the old man replies, I don’t know what we should do. But I do know this: what topples evil empires and deprives despots of sleep is the little person who steals into the piazza at midnight and scrawls on a wall no!

Today the Church celebrates the birth of Mary. The Gospels recall that a young woman in a backwater town on the fringe of the Roman Empire conceived a child whose name was to be Yeshua or Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins. How? Because Mary’s son would be recognized as Emmanuel – God with us.

The message is easy to misunderstand because the Creator of this world is often imagined as the star of a Hollywood blockbuster, assisted by an impressive cohort of angelic hosts. And, over the course of two millennia, the Mother of God has become so loved and so revered that it may be easy to forget that she was only teenager when she pronounced words that would change forever the history of the world as well as its destiny. Through her words, God could scrawl God’s no! to the evil that oppresses women and men, the iniquity that seeks to prevent God from going where God wants to go: the human heart. Forever.

Christianity has been dismissed by critics as the “worship of weakness” that features a cast of fragile, even sinful characters. A cult in which the absurdity of a crucified God claims center stage. Those who strove to change the world by might have written off the disciples of Jesus because of their weakness. Joseph Stalin is said to have asked an adviser dismissively, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Had the adviser possessed greater courage, he might have replied: “How many does he need?”

Pope Benedict XVI described like this the saving story that began in fragility:
God did not take away our humanity but shares it with us. He entered into the loneliness of a ruined love as one who shares the sorrow, as a consolation. This is the divine way of redemption. Maybe from this we can best understand what redemption means in the Christian sense: not a magical transformation of the world, not that our humanity is taken away from us, but that we are consoled, that God shares with us the burden of life, and that now the light of his compassionate love remains forever in our midst.

Because of what began in Mary, the no! of God’s is scrawled forever across the machinery of death and dark armies. Because God became little and experienced our weakness, those who remember how a sunny morning disappeared into a dark night can be comforted that evil does not have the final word.

The saving love of God begs for imitation. Jesus still invites: Follow me! Mary teaches the far-reaching good that happens when a person says yes! to that love.

A friend of mine often says that today is the second-best day to plant a tree. The best occasion was thirty years ago. Since 1983, the Scholarship Fund for Inner-City Children has used that logic to imitate the saving love of God. Seeds planted decades ago bear fruit in assisting parents who want to educate their children in an environment of faith. Your gift will be a decisive no! to marginalization and a yes! to the message that saves a suffering world.

The Mother of God is also called the Sorrowful Mother. May she comfort those who are overwhelmed in sadness as they remember 9/11. May she lead them to hope, hope that has a name and a face, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

–Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.