My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Sept. 11, 2001 is a day I will always remember. Like other days marked by a significant event, you probably also remember exactly where you were when you first heard the news about the terrorist attacks that day on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and aboard United Flight 93 over Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh.
That morning, I had just finished celebrating Mass at St. Constance Church, where I was pastor. I came into the kitchen for some breakfast and turned on the television, only to see the attacks unfold as they were actually taking place. It was frightening to watch. St. Constance Parish is near O’Hare Airport. In fact, a landing pattern had planes flying right over the church and rectory every few minutes on the approach to O’Hare. It was strangely silent when the airport was closed and the flights stopped for several days. Many people came to church to pray throughout the day on that Sept. 11 and for days thereafter.
March 19, 2003 is also a day that I will always remember. It is the day that the war in Iraq officially began. But I remember it first of all because that is the day that I was consecrated a Bishop by Cardinal Francis George at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. After dinner with my family and friends that evening, I turned on the television and again watched the drama unfold. President George W. Bush declared that day that “America’s freedom will be defended, and freedom will be brought to others.”
President Barack Obama announced this past Aug. 31 that Operation Iraqi Freedom was over and that American combat operations in Iraq had ceased. President Bush had promised on March 19, 2003 that “We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others. And we will prevail.” That objective has been achieved, and we can thank the heroic sacrifices of our American troops and the coalition forces that fought with them for achieving this success. The struggle for our safety and the security of the world goes on, with the focus now on defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the terrorists that continue to threaten us.
It is in this context that much debate has taken place recently about the proposed construction of a mosque near “Ground Zero” of the World Trade Center that was demolished by the terrorists on 9/11. I don’t live in New York, so I will defer to the wise and prudent advice offered by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who invoked the example of Pope John Paul II. In 1993, the Holy Father ordered a community of Carmelite nuns to move from their convent at the former Auschwitz death camp after protests from Jewish leaders. Although many Polish Catholics were also killed at Auschwitz, the Jewish leaders thought the presence of the Catholic nuns detracted from the symbolism of Auschwitz as a place where the Nazis had exterminated millions of Jews. The Carmelite nuns certainly had a right to pray there, but Pope John Paul II was sensitive to the feelings of others and so they moved voluntarily.
Similarly, no one is questioning the legal and constitutional right of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero, but it is more a matter of being sensitive to the feelings of people whose loved ones were murdered in the terrorist attacks. Nor is it a matter of tolerance. Americans are a very tolerant people when it comes to freedom of worship. As at Auschwitz, it is a matter of symbolism. Certainly not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the terrorist attackers on 9/11 were Islamist extremists.
Whenever a Christian mentions Islamist terrorists, someone is usually quick to point to Christian involvement in the Crusades. Some Islamist terrorists even claim that their terrorist attacks are revenge for what Christians did in the crusades. Actually, the crusades were responses to Muslim invasions to recapture lands originally occupied primarily by Christians. From approximately A.D. 200 to 900, the land of Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey was inhabited primarily by Christians. Once Islam became powerful, Muslims invaded these lands and brutally oppressed, enslaved, deported, and even murdered the Christians living in those lands.
In response, the Roman Catholic Church and “Christian” kings and emperors from Europe ordered the crusades to reclaim the land the Muslims had taken. I am not trying to defend the Crusades. The actions that many so-called Christians took in the crusades were deplorable and not in keeping with biblical teaching or the mission of Jesus Christ. The point is that Islam is not a religion that can speak from a position of innocence in these matters. In short, the crusades were attempts in the 11th through 13th centuries A.D. to reclaim land in the Middle East that had been conquered by Muslims.
There is much painful history that still divides Christians, Muslims and Jews. We need much more dialogue to overcome these divisions. The way to peace is for all Christians, Muslims and Jews to renounce violence and all acts of terrorism.
May God give us this grace. Amen.