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Heroes and holiness

Archbishop Wenski's homily on 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily during a Mass with Pastoral Center employees, Sept. 10, 2021, in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Tomorrow, of course, marks twenty years since that fateful day when our nation came under attack by men corrupted by an ideology of hate.

And so, we remember all those who died on that September 11th – in New York, in Washington, and in rural Pennsylvania. Among those who died that day were people who found themselves, without intending to, in harm’s way by boarding an airplane, or by going to their office to work. We pray for the repose of their souls and for the consolation of those who grieved them. But there were also those who, in response to the call of duty, placed themselves in harm’s way and perished as they tried to save others. Where did these firefighters and police officers find the strength “to protect and serve,” other than in total adherence to the ideals of their professions: duty, honor, integrity, and honesty?

Many of those first responders who died twenty years ago also believed in Christ, and his words illumined their existence and gave an exemplary value to their sacrifice. They made the Gospel their code of conduct. In faithfully doing their duty they reached the heights of heroism and, perhaps, of holiness. In the days and weeks following 9/11, hundreds of funeral Masses conducted throughout New York and New Jersey testify to the Catholic faith of many, if not most, of these first responders.

Today for many people the difference between celebrity and heroism is obscured. Too often, our society values people for what they have and not for who they are, and when “getting” rather than “giving” is prized celebrities are taken as role models. Starlets with bare midriffs are deemed worthy of emulation; and sports personalities whose records unfortunately also include rap sheets are idolized.

We remember those firefighters and law enforcement personnel who died – because they did not run away from danger but ran towards it; we should honor them not because they did not ever feel fear, but because they did not let fear overwhelm them to keep them from helping their neighbor. None of them were celebrities but they all were heroes.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks about the blind not being able to lead the blind. And certainly an “eye for an eye” mentality will end up leaving us all blind. We should remember what many said in the aftermath of 9/ll: that if we allow ourselves to hate, then the terrorists would have won. 

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