In the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, when American flags seemed to be flying everywhere and Americans could not sing "God Bless America" without tears coming to our eyes, we had a precious moment as a nation to examine how we would move forward in a way that not only kept faith with, but built upon, the legacy of the men and women who gave their lives on September 11th. We responded, of course, with the demand for justice and the insistence that those who plan, support and carry out acts of terrorism be made incapable of continuing such atrocities. But as the military action in Afghanistan widened into Iraq, discussions of who we are as a nation came to be seen more and more through the perspective of how one viewed an increasingly unpopular war and the exercise of military power by the United States.
Immediately following the December 7, 1941, attack by the Japanese on the American navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, President Franklin Roosevelt called the occasion a "Day of Infamy." Hearing those words today, many Americans would think first of the terrorist attack of September 11th. Soon after America declared war on Japan as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Sir Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, addressed a Joint Session of the U. S. Congress. After recounting that attack and the subsequent Japanese aggressions against the British, Filipino and American peoples elsewhere in the Pacific, acts that Churchill described as "outrages" that could not be reconciled with "sanity," he went on to ask, "What kind of a people do they think we are?" The atrocities committed on September 11th have caused many Americans to ask Churchill's question again: "What kind of a people do they think we are?" Perhaps more importantly, many Americans are asking "What kind of a people are we becoming since the events of September 11th?
Nearly sixty-five years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American and Japanese nations are close allies and their people are increasingly bound together culturally, economically and socially although they remain for the most part distinct in regard to their religious traditions.
In the months following September 11th, American Catholics increasingly looked to the leadership of Pope John Paul II for spiritual and moral guidance in answering the question, "What kind of a people are we becoming since the events of September 11th?" A decade before September 11th, John Paul II wrote, "It is by uniting his own suffering for the sake of truth and freedom to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross that man is able to accomplish the miracle of peace and is in a position to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil and the violence which, under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse." The Pope was describing the "spirit" of the Solidarity reform movement in Poland that had led up to the "miracle" of 1989 and the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism in Europe. As the United States likewise attempts to "discern" the "narrow path" in regard to the Middle East, the Pope's words present a profound challenge to Christians.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI have responded to this challenge in a variety of ways. One might consider the entire mission of the pontificate of John Paul II as a concerted effort to meet this challenge by leading an extraordinary renewal of faith beginning with his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis: "Christ the Redeemer fully reveals man to himself" (n. 10). It is clear with the publication of Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, that he, too, is carrying this effort forward. Both Popes have built upon the foundation of the Second Vatican Council, especially its statement in Gaudium et Spes that it is only through the mystery of Christ that the mystery of man can be understood. What is the continuing value of this mystery in today's world and to what extent is it limited to believers or universally applicable is more than ever a fundamental question in post-September 11th Americaa nation in which nine out of ten persons profess a belief in God.
Mahler and Mickiewicz
Lieutenant O'Callaghan had a habit of leaving little messages for his wife and children on paper notes before he left in the morning to join the firefighters at Ladder Company 4. On many days he would write simply: "I love you." As a firefighter, Danny O'Callaghan was committed to saving lives. We might say that in their profession he and his colleagues had dedicated their lives to building a "culture of life." He understood also that to build a culture of life depended upon something even more fundamentalthe commitment to building a culture of love.
On January 17, 2004, a concert unique in the history of music was performed at the Vatican in the presence of John Paul II who was accompanied by the Chief Rabbi and the Imam of Rome. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra traveled from the United States to perform Gustav Mahler's magnificent Second Symphony in C minor, "Resurrection." The concert brought together musicians from Germany, England, Poland, Turkey and the United States to perform before an audience gathered from every continent as well as almost every nation and religious faith. The Bohemian composer, Gustav Mahler, had taken for his inspiration, "Dziady," the epic story by Poland's great poet and playwright, Adam Mickiewicz, in order to create one of the works of greatest spiritual insight of the late nineteenth century.
As we listened to the choir and soloists sing, "With wings that I wrested for myself, in the fervent struggle of love, I shall fly away to the light which no eye pierced," it was with great anticipation that everyone waited to hear what the Holy Father would say at the conclusion of the performance. John Paul II spoke not only of the role of music in fostering mutual understanding among people of different cultures and religions, but of the need for courage in the search for peace. He ended with words directed to the heart of each one there: "love conquers all." Perhaps some dismissed those words as the poetic response of one Polish poet to the words set to music of an earlier Polish poet. But that evening, John Paul II was not simply turning a phrase; he was being as practical as he knew how to be. For him, those three words were not poetry, but realpolitik.
If the true meaning and dignity of each person can be understood adequately only by means of a person's vocation to love, then the only culture consistent with this dignity is what John Paul II called a "civilization of love." And the only path to a "civilization of love" is a "culture of life."
In his 1994 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II called upon the Catholic people to become "a people of life and a people for life" who are working to build a culture of life. This is a responsibility of every Christian, regardless of one's personal talents or situation in life. Every Christian has the responsibility to work to build a culture of life and if "of life," then also "of love."
This responsibility is not only for Christians. Most importantly in today's world it cannot be the responsibility of only Christians. During the more than a quarter of a century that John Paul II served as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, he could have called for the restoration of a Christian society throughout Europe and elsewhere or for the building of Catholic cultures throughout the world. But he did not. Instead, he spoke repeatedly of building a "culture of life" and a "civilization of love." Such a culture and a civilization would, of course, be open to all men and women of good will. If the vocation to love is written in the heart of every person, then every person can be invited to participate in building a civilization of love. And in this civilization there must be a place for every person.
Clearly, this is not a project restricted to the West or perhaps not even principally directed toward the West given the rapid trend toward secularization in Europe and North America. Before the Iraq war, both the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches raised strong concerns regarding the use of military force by the United States. This divergence between the major Christian leadership and the direction of national policy was just the latest in a series of policy disputes on issues such as abortion, divorce and marriage between persons of the same sex. At least among Catholics, that divergence is heightened in many regions of North America and Europe.
Written by a Divine Hand
In 1920, the Catholic apologist, Hilaire Belloc wrote in his book, Europe and the Faith, that "Europe is the Faith." And in order to leave no doubt as to what he meant, he continued, "The Church is Europe and Europe is the Church." Whether this ever was the case is for historians to determine. Obviously, it is not the case today. Sometime in the near future it may be appropriate to say, "Latin America is the Faith" or "Africa is the Faith."
While some secularists in the West may suppose that a clash of civilizations is ultimately unavoidable, there are still many people of faith in the West who would agree with Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the American constitutional system of government. that "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power." This understanding of human rights and human dignityas having a transcendent origin and universally applicable to every personis itself another potential bridge between civilizations.
This is the only answer that can begin to offer an authentic solution to avoid a clash of civilizationsone that offers the real possibility to transcend hostility and violence. Many American Catholics have taken up the challenge to recognize this reality and to act on it in such a way that Jews, Muslims and others are welcome to participate. They also recognize that justice must go hand in hand with a commitment to charity, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est. And when taken together, a commitment to justice and charity can make possible the building of a civilization of love. But that effort can only proceed on the basis of a commitment to religious freedom, tolerance and respect for people of all religions.
For example, on November 14, 2005, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C., Christians, Jews and Muslims joined together for an evening of religious understanding and religious liberty with a concert entitled, "Rejoice In This Land." On April 27, 2006, more than 100 religious leaders including many Catholics and Muslims came together in Washington, D.C., for an International Prayer for Peace conference sponsored by the Sant' Egidio Community, Georgetown University, The Catholic University of America, and the Archdiocese of Washington.
Since 2004, the Catholic charitable organization, the Knights of Columbus, has observed September 11th as a special International Day of Prayer for Peace and has promoted the recitation of the following prayer for peace composed by Pope John Paul II:
With you, O Mother of the Redeemer,
May the hymn of the humble and
The poor rise to almighty God:
May he, the merciful one,
Bring peace to earth,
Reconcile brothers at enmity,
Make Abel rise again;
May he bring all of creation
To the design he had at the beginning
In the love of the Son,
In the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
More recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Islamic Society of North America have published the results of an eight year dialogue that continued through the events of September 11th. Entitled, "Revelation: Catholic and Muslim Perspectives", the text provides not only the results of many years of fruitful dialogue, but also provides the foundation for future dialogue and projects. Significantly, the text concluded, "Through dialogue and improved cooperation, Muslims and Catholics can develop a just and peaceful society in the spirit of the teachings of the Gospel and the Qur'an... We firmly believe that God calls us to this dialogue and blesses the efforts of those who seek to do the will of God."
This May 13th many Catholics around the world remembered the 25th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II by the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca. The Pope said afterward that he survived the attack because Mary "Virgin ever Virgin" intervened to save his life. John Paul II said, "One hand shot me and another hand guided the bullet." May 13th is the feast day of Mary under her title, "Our Lady of Fatima" and recalls the appearance of Mary to Portuguese children on May 13th, 1917, in the Portuguese village of Fatima.
Fatimah was, of course, the fifth child of Muhammad and the village in Portugal was named after a well-loved princess named in her honor. In the Qur'an the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary is mentioned no less than thrity times. Perhaps it is simply a coincidence of history that Mary under her title that has such connection to Islam would be credited by John Paul II for saving him from Mehmet Ali Agca. If instead of coincidence, Catholics and Muslims can see mystery, then perhaps the hand of Mary can again guide us away from the effects of violence.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal