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Every year, as Sept. 11 approaches, there is an air of uneasiness as America waits and watches to see if any act of carnage will be perpetrated as a grisly memorial to the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. There is heightened concern for the safety of historic monuments and some of us are inclined to avoid crowds in public places.
Will the enemy strike again? Pundits fill the airwaves with alarm and speculation. And so far, the fateful day has come and gone without incident. But amid all the excited talk and sentiment, there is no mention of the real tragedy of 9-11 and its possible repetition: the loss of souls.
When the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed, officials and the media were intent to know the number of those who died in the attack. But none wondered how many of the victims were in a state of grace. As horrible as was the conflagration caused by the planes that slammed into the buildings, how much more horrible was that into which it plunged those who died with unrepentant mortal sins.
The representatives of just about every faith deplored the attack, mourned the dead and sympathized with the survivors. The Catholic clergy joined this chorus of lamentation, but there was something missing in their response: the supernatural element.
It was natural that we should all feel pity for the families of those killed that day, and it was right and inevitable that such pity should be expressed by our leaders. Death has been called the great equalizer. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, gender or creed. Its pains and terrors are common to all of us. We are united by grief.
But there is a deeper sense in which death is the great divide: it separates eternally the saved from the damned.
Death is one of the punishments for original sin. Its inevitability is like a perpetual cloud on our horizon, proclaiming the fragile and fleeting character of every human happiness.
The sadness of death even moved Our Lord. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, his heart wrenched by the sufferings of mortality that sin has visited upon His creatures. He did not make us to die, but to live. It is we who brought death upon ourselves. And death comes most suddenly in a time of war.
Our Lady of Fatima told us that war is a chastisement of sin. If 9-11 was an act of war, as is maintained, then it was also a chastisement for sin. The only religious leader to call it a chastisement was, regrettably, a Protestant, and the world came down on his head for it. Our Catholic prelates stayed clear of any evaluation of the event in supernatural terms, other than the nowadays usual canonization of all who lost their lives.
Universal salvation has become a de facto doctrine of many priests and bishops in the post-Vatican II Church. It is very appealing in terms of human sentiment, as it absolves us from the consequences of sin and relieves us of all anxiety about whether our relatives who have died have saved their souls. Pray for the dead? No more. We now celebrate their sainthood, with priests donning white vestments at funeral Masses and assuring the grieving family that their loved one is in Heaven. So it went after 9-11.
But every Catholic knows in his heart that universal salvation is false comfort. It is, in fact, heresy. Our Lord told us that the road to damnation is broad and crowded; the way to Heaven is narrow and few there are who find it. How many found it when those planes turned the Twin Towers into an inferno?
Most of those who died in the 9-11 attack worked in the investment industry. Many were affluent. To the common man, those who died in the attack belonged to an elite corps of money men, as high above the normal occupations of life as were the towers that were struck. We cannot know the conditions of their souls, but we have reason to fear that many were not prepared for their judgment.
The attacks, we are told, were carried out by the disciples of Muhamed. They cried to their god Allah as they steered the planes into the buildings. Theirs was an act of jihad, of holy war against the infidel. But if their actions were motivated by religion, why not attack a symbol of religion? Why not blow up a cathedral or a synagogue?
The answer is that they did choose to attack a symbol of religion: the great cathedral of Mammon. Our Lord told us: “No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt. 6:24)
If Western man has a common faith these days, it is not in Jesus Christ or Moses; it is in Mammon. The World Trade Center was not erected to honor God, nor to further the salvation of souls. It was built as a money exchange. Did any of the firms destroyed that day observe a policy of corporate morning prayer?
To raise such questions may strike some as being callous to the sufferings of those who lost spouses and parents and children on that terrible day. But is not the loss of an immortal soul a more serious matter than the loss of a mortal life? And amid all the concern and speculation about a repeat attack, who is urging us to prepare ourselves by keeping our souls in a state of grace?
Our Lady of Fatima has promised us that if we fulfill Her requests, She will see to it that we have the graces we need at the time of our death. If we pray five decades of the Rosary, confess and receive Communion, and meditate for 15 minutes on the mysteries of the Rosary on five consecutive First Saturdays, all with the intention of making reparation to Her Immaculate Heart, then She will be with us when the time comes for us to leave this world and stand before Her Son in judgment. Her promise is great, Her requests simple. Why would we not do as Our Blessed Mother asks?
We will all face our own 9-11, the moment when we must leave all that has defined life for us in this world. Let us be ready. For the only ultimate tragedy is not the loss of life, but the loss of Heaven.