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Tradition a saving grace for parish associate


I work in a suburban parish of about 2,500 families. On Sept. 11 I arrived at my office after lunch, dazed by the news of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. I spent most of that afternoon, as many of us did, in front of the television.

As the afternoon proceeded, the phone started to ring. “Are we having anything tonight?” “What are we going to do?” parishioners asked. A portion of our staff met and decided we needed to have some sort of prayer service, maybe a Mass. We tossed out a couple of ideas. There was an ecumenical prayer service at 6:30 that our parish had been invited to, but we knew that the church hosting the service was too small to hold all of our people. We scheduled a Mass for 8 p.m. Then out came the Sacramentary, out came the Book of Blessings. We struggled to choose appropriate music. We found servers, a lector, people to distribute Communion.

At eight, people filled the church, some with kids struggling to stay awake, some with their spouses, some from our catechumenate. I’ve never heard singing like I heard that night. I was so thankful we had a ritual, a rubric to follow, something to fall back on when we couldn’t think clearly. I was so appreciative of the words of the prophet Micah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks …” I was, on that night, grateful to work for the church.

Ordinarily I’m not a very pious person. I shy away from traditional displays of religiosity. They don’t impress me. Usually. But this has not been an ordinary couple of weeks. Since the events of Sept. 11, displays of piety and religiosity, once expendable, are now comforting. I consider them displays of faith unearthed, signs of hope. I relish the sight of a wooden sign I see on my way to work, spray-painted in blue, plain and simple, the word, “pray.” A couple of weekends ago, I drove along Interstate 70 on a Sunday evening, listening to the memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, singing and saying the responses along with the people as I listened to the National Public Radio broadcast, feeling intimately connected, blinking back tears so I could keep my eyes on the road. I thought to myself, thank God for our traditions.

I felt the same thanksgiving for tradition when we planned the evening Mass at our parish on Sept. 11. Thank God there is a special Mass in the Sacramentary for times of war and civil disturbance, a prayer in the Book of Blessings for victims of crime and violence. Thank God for some of the songs I’ve sung since grade school: “Be Not Afraid,” “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” Thank God for traditions. Though I felt solace in praying with my faith community on the night of Sept. 11, the feelings of fear and helplessness have been overwhelming. Why do they hate us so much? Is my family in danger? Are my friends in New York City safe? What on earth am I supposed to do with myself now? Where have I heard of Osama bin Laden before?

My introduction to Osama bin Laden came almost two years ago when I toured the Middle East during graduate school. Our massive tour group visited Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea, at the height of the pre-millennium tension and during the U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israel and Syria for the land in the Golan Heights region. One evening I watched BBC on my hotel television and saw the protests and slayings. Osama bin Laden was named as a suspect. This was the first time I heard of him. The news cameras shifted to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, warning Americans not to travel to the Middle East unless “absolutely necessary.” She also encouraged Americans to “stay away from large groups.” I tensed up and thought of our two blimpy white tour buses, guided by a Palestinian bus driver and a Jewish-American tour guide. I almost wished I hadn’t seen the newscast. But this fear was fleeting, and our tour guide assured us that “No American Christian tourist has ever been harmed in the Holy Land.”

This short fretful stint spent in front of my hotel television was the first time I had ever been conscious of my identity as an American. Before traveling abroad I had thought of myself on other terms: graduate student, Michigan native, Catholic, runner. I rarely had been aware of my own national identity. I had never realized, until that brief moment in front of the television, that my safety was in jeopardy because of my nation of origin.

The Persian Gulf War was another point of contact between America and the Middle East, but the event sounded little cause for alarm on my teenage radar screen. Perhaps I was too young to understand. I was a sophomore in high school during the days of Scud missiles and Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf. I remember watching the explosions flash on TV as they stood out in sharp relief against the night sky. I recall a brief moment of sympathy for my mom because the attacks had begun the on her birthday. I never felt that my safety was in jeopardy.

I realize now that my brief interactions with the Middle East took place during different days -- the days when battles took place “over there.” Those were days when the United States, in the words of New Yorker correspondent Denis Johnson, “[was] seen, by some people, as keeping the destruction rolling without getting too much in the way of it.”

And now we wait for our nation’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We’ve heard talk from our president of using “every necessary weapon of war.” We’ve heard of those who are wanted “dead or alive.” Everywhere there is talk of bombing Afghanistan. Questions rise to the surface of my mind, three in particular: How are bombs an appropriate or effective response to awful carnage brought about with rental cars, credit cards, box cutters and passenger planes? Do we really want all of the terrorists dead or do we want to regain our security and safety? What does the tradition of the gospel hint to us that we should do in response?

The attacks leveled against the United States have exposed an apparent level of hatred rarely seen before. Especially unfathomable is that human beings could, in a moment of religious fervor, completely subjugate their own will to live. One wonders if any level of military spending would affect that apparent rage.

All around me I hear talk of revenge and retaliation. Perhaps, though, what we want as a nation is not to cause more death and destruction but to rid ourselves of this newfound fear and helplessness. We have the desire to punish because we want to live in a world that is safe and secure, not necessarily because we desire death for others. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book Living a Life that Matters, points out that the World Council of Churches condemns revenge as an attempt to extend suffering rather than transcend it, to make someone hurt as we have been hurt.

Scripture offers a somewhat mixed bag in terms of what our response should be. There is, of course, Christ’s message to turn the other cheek, the many exhortations to forgive. Forgive and forget? First of all, we will never, ever forget this incident. And it is too soon to speak of forgiveness.

For me, it will be a long time before I look at those scriptural passages on forgiveness. For now, I have found great comfort in the psalms, the great hymns to God that convey the anger, hopelessness and violation that we all feel. I received an e-mail the other day encouraging us to pray Psalm 5, and its words reverberate in my mind: For you are not a God who delights in wickedness … there is no truth in my enemies’ mouths, their hearts are destruction … make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels … you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.

Renée M. LaReau is a pastoral associate at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Kettering, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001