Bill Kelly Jr., a 30-year-old financial-services employee, didn’t work at the World Trade Center. It was just by chance that he attended a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World restaurant — at the top of the center’s North Tower — on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Through that cruel twist of fate, he was one of the hundreds who died that fateful morning, when hijacked planes crashed into the two WTC towers, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in rural Pennsylvania.
That morning forever changed the lives of most Americans, including Bill’s sister, Colleen Kelly.
In the months after her brother’s death, Kelly said she struggled with intense feelings of sorrow, loss, anger and even hatred. She said she relied heavily on the compassion and support of her family and friends, who always were willing to lend a listening ear. She eventually helped found September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization of victims’ families who united to turn their grief into action and advocacy for world peace .
Kelly, who lives in the Bronx, also relied on the strong foundation of her Catholic faith. She’d been raised Catholic, but said she didn’t realize how deeply ingrained her faith was until it was tested in the months following the terrorist attacks. She vividly remembers thinking, “Thank God I really believe this stuff. It’s not just something that you recite in church.”
“It felt like a relief to me that — although the hijackers took my brother — they did not take my belief system and who I thought I was and what I thought I believed in,” Kelly said. “If that foundation had also been shaken, I don’t know where I’d be today.”
The Lord’s Prayer, which she had grown up reciting, includes the petition, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Kelly said she had always believed that Catholics were called to forgive each other and turn the other cheek, but after Sept. 11, she wasn’t sure how to begin to forgive.
“That’s the hard work, and I’m in no way near done,” she said.
As the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks draw near, Kelly is among thousands contemplating the challenge of forgiveness. In today’s war-torn world, many people say they are growing increasingly weary of violence and are looking for ways to find peace.
“I think forgiveness may be the only option,” said Sister Donna del Santo, vocations director for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester and an organizer of her congregation’s monthly prayer gatherings for peace.
Contrary to the popular saying, it is not always necessary — or even possible — to forget in order to forgive, observed Carmel Merrill, a member of the steering committee for the Rochester chapter of Fellowship of Reconciliation. The interfaith, international group is dedicated to replacing violence, war, racism and economic injustice with nonviolence, peace and justice.
When people forgive, they’re really freeing themselves from their own emotional shackles and a prison of hatred and bitterness, Merrill said. “It has to be something that you want (to do) to be free and move on with your own life.”
People often decide to forgive because they need to do it for themselves, rather than because the people who wronged them need forgiveness, said Deacon John Tomandl, coordinating chaplain at Auburn Correctional Facility. Those who forgive let go of hatred because it has the potential to consume them and take over their lives, he said.
Oftentimes, the families and friends of murder victims, for example, eventually forgive murderers and move on, observed Deacon William Coffey, who works with victims and families. If they don’t forgive, he said, their lives will be full of bitterness and they’ll be unable to grow mentally, physically or spiritually, he said.
Conversely, people often seek forgiveness because it’s human nature to crave reconciliation and to re-establish broken relationships, said Father Laurence Tracy, a longtime minister to Rochester’s Hispanic community.
Forgiveness often is overlooked in today’s popular culture because people mistakenly believe justice is about getting revenge, noted Ruth Putnam Marchetti, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities in Livingston County and the Finger Lakes region. The Catholic faith’s message directly contradicts this view, she noted.
“Our faith tells us that forgiveness is what really brings reconciliation and healing, and that’s how we find peace,” she said.
Forgiveness has long been a staple of Catholic teaching. Scripture is full of forgiveness stories, including the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ mercy to sinners, said Father Tracy, who often visits inmates in Monroe County Jail.
The Gospel of Matthew, in particular, highlights Jesus’ emphasis on forgiveness, said Sister Janet Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities. In Matthew 18:21-35, Peter asked Jesus how many times he was supposed to forgive a brother who had sinned against him. Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother “seventy times seven” times, and then told the parable of an unforgiving servant who was severely punished by his king.
The Gospel relates that Jesus then told his listeners, “And that is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
There’s no doubt that Catholics are called to forgive others, Sister Korn added.
“It’s what we’re all about as Catholics and as Christians. It’s what following Jesus means,” she said.
Jesus himself provided one of the greatest examples of forgiveness by dying on the cross so that our sins would be forgiven, said Deacon John Brasley, diocesan coordinator of community services.
“One of the great things about being Catholic ‚Ä¶ is that we have the great gift of forgiveness that was modeled for us by Jesus,” said Deacon Brasley, whose office oversees jail ministry.
“We forgive not because people desire it, but because God has forgiven us,” Father Tracy agreed.
Forgiveness is such an important facet of the Catholic faith that there is even a sacrament devoted to it — the sacrament of reconciliation. Through this sacrament, Catholics tell God — through a priest — that they’re sorry for their sins, and ask for God’s forgiveness, Deacon Brasley said.
“It’s so important to say those words to the priest, who represents Jesus and his church. It’s important to say, ‘I’m so sorry for what I’ve done,’ and to seek forgiveness and to hear the words of the priest when you’re absolved,” he added.
The sacrament of reconciliation allows Catholics to repair their broken relationship with God and find healing, Deacon Tomandl noted.
“It allows us to with both humility and self-confidence to go to God and say, ‘You know, I feel that I’ve moved away from you, and I know you don’t want that to happen, and I don’t want that to happen,’” he said.
Through the sacrament, Catholics can ask God to pull them back into a close and healthy relationship, he said. The sacrament, especially in the days of the early church, also served as a way of publicly welcoming back people who’ve strayed or been alienated from the church, Father Tracy said.
Not just for Catholics
But Catholics are not alone in placing a high value on forgiveness and reconciliation.
The interfaith Rochester Fellowship of Reconciliation is currently working in conjunction with diocesan Catholic Charities and several other local organizations to bring to the Rochester area, the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes region this month a traveling exhibit provocatively titled “The F Word: Images of Forgiveness”.
The exhibit displays the stories of dozens of people across the globe who’ve made personal pilgrimages toward reconciliation and forgiveness. It was developed by The Forgiveness Project, an international organization dedicated to reframing the debate about how individuals and communities can learn to celebrate difference, overcome division, foster positive social change and stop the cycle of violence.
“What The Forgiveness Project is all about is a way to rethink what happens when a person or a group is the victim of violence,” said Peggy Rosenthal, a member of the Rochester Fellowship of Reconciliation and a parishioner of Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Church. “This is going to be the fifth anniversary of the ‚Ä¶ World Trade Center (attack), and we felt that ‚Ä¶ it’s time now that people begin to see that occasion in ways other than a reason for more violence.”
Rosenthal said she believes the stories relayed by the exhibit prove that forgiveness can effectively pave the way toward peace. These days, she observed, people become discouraged by what seems to be an unstoppable cycle of violence, and they’re longing for a way to end it.
“We felt, especially on Sept. 11, that we need to help our community in Rochester have a discussion about moving into forgiving as true peacemaking,” Rosenthal said.
Rochester’s WXXI Public Broadcasting Council also plans to encourage such community discussions, said Marion French, the station’s assistant vice president for education and interactive services. WXXI is one of six broadcast outlets around the country taking part in the national Campaign for Love and Forgiveness, which explores how love and forgiveness can effect positive changes in individuals and communities.
WXXI will launch the campaign this month to coincide with The Forgiveness Project’s exhibit. At one of the first showings, WXXI representatives will be on hand to solicit local residents’ stories of love and forgiveness, which will later be shared through WXXI’s Web site and radio and television stations.
Throughout the year WXXI also will organize several community-wide discussions about such themes as forgiveness, violence, poverty and racism.
Putnam Marchetti pointed out that Pope John Paul II was very outspoken about the need for forgiveness in order to move toward peace in the world. On another level, forgiveness also is important in any relationship between people, said Deacon Brasley, who with his wife Belinda coordinates the diocesan chapter of Worldwide Marriage Encounter.
“It’s important to say the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ and to even say the words, ‘Will you forgive me?’ It’s really important to say these words out loud so the healing can really begin,” Deacon Brasley said.
By verbally asking someone else to forgive you, you’re giving them control, he added, and if the person decides to forgive, he or she is really deciding to continue loving you.
Each day brings with it dozens of opportunities to forgive others for small things they have or have not done, Colleen Kelly noted. Forgiving someone for bumping into you in the hallway may be very different than forgiving someone for murdering a family member, but both actions come from the same root.
“There are all these little ways to practice forgiveness. If you don’t practice when all these little opportunities arise, when something big happens like 9/11, it’s going to be really hard. Practice every day,” she said.
Events recall 9/11
The following is a sampling of Sept. 11 commemorative events, based on an informal survey by the Catholic Courier.
* On Sept. 11, Bishop Matthew H. Clark will preside at a special Mass in Sacred Heart Cathedral, 296 Flower City Park, Rochester. The Mass will begin at 8:46 a.m., the precise moment the first hijacked jet crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
* “The F Word: Images of Forgiveness” exhibit will be shown at six locations throughout the diocese: School of the Arts, 45 Prince St., Rochester — Sept. 9-10 from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Bausch & Lomb Wintergarden, 1 Bausch Place, Rochester — Sept. 12-14 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sacred Heart Cathedral, 296 Flower City Park, Rochester — Sept. 15-16 from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sept. 17 from 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Nazareth College’s Shults Center, 4245 East Ave., Pittsford — Sept. 19-21 from 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Warren Hunting Smith Library, 337 Pulteney St., Geneva — Sept. 26-28, call 315/781-3549 for exhibit hours; and First Baptist Church, DeWitt Park, Ithaca — Sept. 23 from noon-5 p.m. and Sept. 24 from noon-3 p.m.
* St. Mary Parish, Waterloo, will hold a 7 p.m. Prayer for Peace service Sept. 11 at the church, 25 Center St.
* The Dryden Fire Department will hold a 7 p.m. memorial service Sept. 11 on the Village Green in Dryden.
* During the 10:30 a.m. Mass Sept. 10 at St. Helen Church, 310 Hinchey Road, Gates, those who died in the terrorist attacks will be remembered, and those who serve the public and keep it safe will be honored.
* St. Vincent de Paul, 11 N. Main St., Churchville, will hold an evening of reflection Sept. 11 titled “Harvest Soup for the Soul.” It will begin with a soup supper at 6 p.m., followed by Father Raymond Fleming’s presentation “Where is God when Evil Strikes?”
* St. Lawrence Church, 1000 N. Greece Road, will hold a Remembrance Day Prayer Service on Sept. 11 at 1:15 p.m., including a presentation to the parents of slain New York State Trooper Andrew J. Sperr.
* At 9:15 a.m. Sept. 11 St. Agnes School, 60 Park Place, Avon, will host a community service in the park across from the school.