Noted author and EWTN TV host offers reflections from the scene of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City.
Most of us watched the television news with shock and horror as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed in flames on Sept. 11. It was only a few moments later that it dawned on us that there were still people in the Towers.
How many? Most watching were like myself -- we vastly underestimated the numbers, which were not in the tens or hundreds, but in the thousands. For those of us who are devoted to Divine Mercy through the private revelations of St. Faustina and through the apostolic teaching of Pope John Paul II, this was another time for mercy. Divine Mercy at Ground Zero.
Here, in New York City, hundreds of clergy of all denominations turned out to help people cope with their grief in the aftermath of the tragedy. Many of the victims were Catholic, and priests were especially busy. Our little community of friars from the Bronx was on the site every day from the start, offering spiritual support and First Aid to the many rescuers and the few who were rescued. Among the rescuers, so many of the firefighters and police were particularly heroic. (See accompanying story.)
Many questions remain
In the midst of the tragedy, everyone was asking, "How could God let this happen?" I was so distressed that I did what I always do when I can't pray -- I made the Stations of the Cross. There, at the first station, I found my answer. This station shows wicked and stupid men leading our innocent Savior to torture and death. God can and does permit great evil, even the death of His Only Son, in order to bring out of it a far greater good. All of us know that Jesus suffered and died so we could be saved. "When I am lifted up, I will draw all things to Myself," He tells us (Jn 12:32).
Yet many questions remain. And in such tragedies, behind the main question "Why?" there is a painful and often unspoken question: "Will they be saved?" It is in the hearts of parents, wives, husbands, children, and other relatives of those who have died suddenly. Suppose they were not ready. Suppose, like so many, they were lackadaisical Catholics or had fallen away from the Sacraments. There was no chance for them to confess.
There are some answers to these questions. First of all, most of those who died had some time -- perhaps several minutes before they left this world -- to pray for God's mercy. Some called on cell phones and said good-bye to their dear ones. I am sure that the first priests on hand -- like Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, the fire chaplain who lost his life ministering to the dying -- gave general absolution as soon as they arrived on the scene. It may have been the biggest general absolution in history. After all, this is exactly the kind of occasion that general absolution was intended for!
A power far greater than sin
But, beyond this fact, there is God's unfathomable and inexhaustible mercy, especially for souls in the greatest need of it in just such a tragedy. That is why I am so moved by the beautiful conversations of our Merciful Savior with St. Faustina in which He addresses a sinful soul, a despairing soul, and a suffering soul, as recorded in her Diary. These quotations have been collected, along with others, in the booklet "Conversations with the Merciful God," which I highly recommend. (See ordering information at the end of this article.)
"My Mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of My goodness?" Jesus says in His conversations with a sinful soul. "For I descended from heaven to earth; for you I allowed Myself to be nailed to the cross; for you I let My Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come, then, with trust to draw graces from this fountain" (Diary of St. Maria Faustina, 1485).
For those of us who are grieving the loss of a loved one or friend after such a tragedy, these words remind us that Our Savior's mercy is far greater than any sin humans are capable of committing. The fountain of mercy flows from His Sacred Heart pierced on the cross. It flows for our loved ones, as well as for each of us.
Now some people will say, "But, Father, this is private revelation and does not have the authority of Scripture."
True enough. But it is a fact that God has made His mercy and His will known through private revelations a number of times in the history of the Church. Frequently, these revelations have been given to simple peasant girls, ranging from Joan of Arc, who changed the history of Europe, to St. Bernadette and St. Catherine Laboure. Is it any wonder, then, that God should use a simple peasant girl from Poland, whom we now call St. Faustina, to share His message of mercy in our day?
Final grace for the unprepared
Yet, many of us will still wonder about the spiritual fate of those who are not prepared. How far will God go in offering them mercy?
Here, a crucial passage from Jesus' conversations with a despairing soul -- the most unprepared of all -- gives us reason to hope.
Jesus: "O soul steeped in darkness, do not despair. All is not yet lost. Come and confide in your God who is love and mercy."
In the soul arises this reply: " 'For me there is no mercy,' and it falls into greater darkness, a despair which is a foretaste of hell and makes it unable to draw near to God. Jesus calls to the soul a third time, but the soul remains deaf and blind, hardened and despairing. Then the mercy of God begins to exert itself, and without any cooperation from the soul, God grants it final grace. If this too is spurned, God will leave the soul in this self-chosen disposition for eternity. The grace emerges from the merciful Heart of Jesus and gives the soul a special light by means of which the soul begins to understand God's effort, but conversion depends on its own will. The soul knows that this, for her, is final grace and, should it show even a flicker of good will, the mercy of God will accomplish the rest" (Diary, 1486).
We see that God in His infinite mercy pursues even a "soul steeped in darkness" that is falling ever deeper into despair. All that is needed for the soul to receive God's mercy is "a flicker of good will" as "final grace" is given.
And this passage -- admittedly from a private revelation -- acquires more force when we see how it echoes Jesus' own powerful words of mercy in the Gospel. I'm thinking here of how Jesus Himself prayed for those who had committed the worst sin of all by crucifying Him, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34). We also have the witness of Jesus forgiving the repentant Good Thief, Dismas, who was crucified along with Him. From his own cross, Dismas said to the Savior, " 'Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.' And He said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise' " (Lk 23:42-43).
So, too, the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament tells us that God does not will the death of the sinner: "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ez 33:11).
Our God is a God of Mercy in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and now in the Third Millennium -- even on days like Sept. 11.
The final apostle of mercy
So, in the millionth of a millionth of a second between life and death, when time stops for the soul, Jesus Himself can certainly be His own apostle. He calls even to the despairing and hopeless soul. I believe that He does.
If you place all hope of salvation on a person receiving the Sacraments, you put the salvation of the world in the trembling hands of the clergy. That's not very reassuring. Certainly, we must make every effort to receive the Sacraments as the normal means of salvation. And I do believe that those who died that day received general absolution. But what is far more important is that Jesus comes as His own apostle of Divine Mercy. He comes and offers "final grace" to the souls of those who are unprepared to die.
All of us who are devoted to Our Savior and His urgent message of mercy need to spread this good news throughout the Church and among our non-Catholic friends. We need to say that ultimately the salvation of the world is in the hands of Jesus, and there is no place where anyone could be safer.