National Catholic Reporter ®

September 21, 2001                                                                                                  Vol. 1, No. 4

Americans abroad seek each other
and God amid news of terror

“Anger is a feeling, a human reaction to what is perceived as injustice. It gives us strength to right what is wrong. But all too often that is not how we use it. All too often we turn it in on ourselves and out on innocent others."

For Americans living abroad, the tragedies of Sept. 11 have generated a unique mix of sensations. There’s a new vulnerability, a fear that carrying a U.S. passport might be a risk in the bitter, prolonged war against terrorism everyone seems to expect. At the same time, many Americans have been deeply moved by expressions of support from overseas friends.

Most of all, Americans have felt a need to be together, to inquire about friends and loved ones, to share the latest news, to draw on the strength that only community can provide.

Thus it was that scores of Americans, along with lots of Italian friends, crowded the American parish of Santa Susanna in Rome Sunday, Sept. 16, for a Mass for the victims of the terrorist attack and their families. 

The presider was Cardinal Edmund Szoka, former archbishop of Detroit who in 1990 became the Vatican’s financial czar. Paulist Fr. Paul Robichaud, rector of Santa Susanna, gave the homily. New U.S. ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson also spoke. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in Rome with his wife for a legal conference, attended, as did several members of the ambassadorial corps.

Santa Susanna, like many churches in Rome, is sometimes half full on Sundays, but the crowd this beautiful September day spilled into the exits and out onto the sidewalk.

At a time when American blood boils, Robichaud offered words of caution.

“Anger is a feeling, a human reaction to what is perceived as injustice,” he said. “It gives us strength to right what is wrong. But all too often that is not how we use it. All too often we turn it in on ourselves and out on innocent others."

“Evil loves to feed on anger,” Robichaud said. “To turn anger into rage, to turn fear into isolation, to turn doubt into cynicism, to turn offense into arrogance, and to turn hurt into vendetta.”

He urged listeners to instead use anger as a spur to self-examination. “By living lives of love,” he said, “we become a continuous rebuke to the events of this past Tuesday.”

Robichaud stressed that Christians believe the most fundamental conflict with evil has already been won.

“We do not need to give into rage … but to trust in God’s peace and presence, for we know that in Christ’s death and resurrection we are more than victors,” he said.

Robichaud was not, it should be said, preaching a turn-the-other-cheek ethic that would end up handing a free pass to terrorists. He understands the argument for legitimate self-defense; he is something of a military man himself, a chaplain in the U.S. Naval Reserve since 1984. Perhaps because of that background, however, he grasps the difference between a sober assessment of a threat and lashing out in anguish.

(Pope John Paul II struck a similar note the same day, calling on the United States “not to give in to the temptation of hate and violence.” The remarks came during a two-hour pastoral visit to the Italian town of Frosinone, and the challenge they will face to find a hearing was obvious even there. Someone had brought a banner reading: “Good hunting to our American brothers.”)

In his homily, Robichaud also tried to answer the question that every grief-stricken believer asks: Where is God?

“Whenever an act of love or mercy occurs, God is present,” he said. “Whenever an act of healing or forgiveness takes place, God is here.”

He pointed to the numerous examples of self-sacrifice in New York: taxi cab drivers ripping out their back seats to transport the wounded, people lining up to give blood, rescue workers desperately clawing through rubble, family members tracking down leads about the missing.

“Where is God? There is God,” he insisted, “alive and moving and filled with hope and compassion.”

“When we see the courage and heroism and generosity of the people of New York, we Americans this week are all New Yorkers,” Robichaud said.

Szoka reminded the crowd of what Pope John Paul had said at his Sept. 12 general audience, 24 hours after the attacks. Before it began, an aide asked the crowd to refrain from applause at the direct request of the pope. (Audiences are generally a bit like high-school pep rallies, with banners and good-natured competition to see who can holler the loudest).

The pope then termed the events of Sept. 11 “a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity.” He added, “Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say.”

Szoka called the audience a “very powerful, maybe mystical experience.”

The cardinal added a word of thanks to the many Italians who had shown Americans their support.

Nicholson, who presented his credentials to John Paul two days after the attacks, said he and the pope prayed a private Hail Mary together for the victims and survivors and for the United States.

“The Holy Father told me how much he hopes America will prevail,” Nicholson said, “that we will be a model for the values we cherish. I assured him we would do that.”

At the end of the Mass, the 45 priests who had concelebrated with Szoka and Robichaud filed out and gathered at the bottom of the stairs. As worshippers exited, the priests sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

The moment was ripe with the potential to feel hokey, or jingoistic. Instead, it felt good, in part because Robichaud’s invocation of the better angels of our national nature was still ringing in our ears.

Let’s hope that voices such as his, and the pope’s, come to be heard above the saber rattling in the days ahead.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

© 2001 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280