There is a biblical understanding of remembering that means simply to make present again, to relive an event. This is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, where to forget is to obliterate and to remember is to keep a relationship very much alive. (The Lord "forgets" our sins and "remembers" his promises, his covenant with us.)
The twin towers, the Pentagon and the downed plane in a field near Shanksville, Pa. — three sites of terrorist destruction, three scenes of lightning-like strikes of evil in our world — are present in the minds of remembering millions on Sept. 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks.
The bringing-to-life dimension of the Scriptural sense of remembering takes me back 10 years to the moment I learned of the attack and promptly left a conference I was attending in southern Maryland to return to my post as pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Streets and bridges into downtown Washington were closed. I had to circle around the Maryland beltway and vector down New Hampshire Avenue into the District to get back to the parish before noon.
A shaken parishioner met me and said he had left the Pentagon just 15 minutes before the plane crashed into that building. People came to pray, to seek the sacrament of reconciliation, to ponder the meaning of it all beneath clear skies eerily empty of airplanes and in a national capital laced by tension and anxiety.
The parish came alive in liturgical remembrance of those innocents who lost their lives as well as prayer for the enemies who were out to destroy us. A few days later, Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Tommy Thompson, a Catholic, came to Sunday evening Mass at Trinity.
When I greeted him before Mass, he said, "I need a good liturgy, and they tell me you have good liturgy here."
I gave him an aisle seat near the back of the church with his Secret Service agent seated immediately behind him. When the secretary, who had special responsibility for protecting the nation against germ and chemical warfare in those tense days, received holy Communion in the hand, he wrapped his other hand around mine in a grip of gratitude and then slipped out to his waiting car to return to meet his departmental responsibilities.
While the shock of these grim events still held the attention of the nation, another Holy Trinity parishioner, folk singer and composer Tom Paxton, wrote a haunting song called "The Bravest." It recounts the story of a man who, when the first plane hit the tower that was twin to the one where he was working, it "left a firey gaping hole where offices had been."
"I grabbed the pictures from my desk and joined the flight for life," the lyrics go. And as the singer went down, "we heard them coming up, from several floors below — a crowd of firefighters with their heavy gear in tow."
"Now every time I try to sleep, I’m haunted by the sound.
"Of fireman pounding up the stairs, when we were running down."
Tom Paxton’s song catches the heroic rhythm "of fireman pounding up the stairs, when we were running down."
Many heroic firefighters and first responders lost their lives along with the thousands of office occupants and those who died in airplanes unaware, when that fateful day began, that it would be their last.
A remembering America cannot bring them back to life but can make them present again.
Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, Pa.