The National Catholic Review
Robert P. Waznak

Sept. 11, 2001, drove preachers of the Good News to tackle the classic questions of theodicy: If God exists, why is there evil? Why does God allow the barbarous destruction of innocent people? How can a God of love allow terrorist acts of hate to happen? Except on Good Friday and at funerals, these are questions that preachers in our time have come to dodge. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and his Escape from Evil demonstrate how feel-good Americans sanitize the inevitable messiness of life. American preachers are not immune from this culture of denial. But the horrific events of that Tuesday sent them scrambling to reexamine their theologies of Good Friday. We do not yet have a comprehensive catalogue of what preachers proclaimed after the terror of Sept. 11, but we do have a sampling of some of the sermons and homilies and media theological discussions. I believe they illustrate both the eloquence and the awkwardness of preaching faith in the midst of tragedy and, therefore, serve as models of what to say and what not to say when terror strikes our safe and sheltered lives.

God wills it. On EWTN, Mother Angelica tried to explain how God could be involved in the terrorist attacks by making a distinction between God’s desirous will and permissive will. In this she returned to Thomas Aquinas’s famous logical argument that God, therefore, neither wills evil to be done, or wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and that is a good (Summa Theologica). I have a hunch that many preachers schooled in scholastic theology also employed this same explanation. Karl Rahner challenged this Thomistic distinction, since it was of secondary importance. I have a suspicion that most listeners today would also find this scholastic reasoning not only of secondary importance but cold and unsatisfying to the hungers of their hearts.

Good will come out of this suffering. In our struggle to make sense of the terrorist attacks, some preachers relied on the old shibboleth, Somehow good will come out of this suffering. On Friday’s memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral, the Rev. Billy Graham said Tuesday’s tragic events have brought a new spirit in our nation...a spiritual revival...a return to God. Pointing to the future and the hope that emerges after death is central to preaching the paschal mystery. This theological path can be traced back to the Latin tradition, which focused on the cross as a source of our redemption. But not all medieval theologians preached this way. Abelard and Aquinas stressed that it was the love of Christ and not his suffering that was redemptive. Preachers must be careful to balance both suffering and love. Otherwise we end up with sermons that make grace dependent on a cruel and demanding God. This pastoral balance was heard in the response of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., when he was asked on a local radio broadcast, Why did God allow this tragedy: You’re throwing me a tough one.... This is not an intellectual discussion but an opportunity to consider the depth of God’s love. That is how the Christian must gaze on the cross of Christ and on the terrible crosses of our time.

God is sending us a message here. This was the response offered by EWTN’s Deacon Bill Steltemeier and the Rev. Pat Robertson on his 700 Club. Both referred to the horrific events of Sept. 11 as a wake-up call from God. Certainly this response has its roots in biblical prophetic preaching. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jesus all warned about the coming of doom because of the sins of the people. Jeremiah offered a vision of an enemy pouring destruction over the land like a pot of boiling water being tipped on its side. Amos told the people that they would die exiled in an unclean land. But these biblical images can be manipulated by preachers resorting to their own pulpit terrorism. A balanced biblical perspective is needed here. We must not forget Jeremiah’s call for obedience to the Lord found in covenantal love. We cannot ignore that the basic message of Amos was God’s moral rule over the entire world and the divine demands for justice and concern for the outcast and oppressed.

We are Easter people and Alleluia is our song. I have no evidence for the fact, but no doubt this quote attributed to St. Augustine was probably used by preachers when terror struck America. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection is central to our Christian faith. But preachers must always be attentive to the mood of those gathered because of death. A culture of a denial of death fast-forwards to Easter Sunday before it has paused long enough before the cross of Good Friday. Sometimes a funeral Mass is called a Mass of the Resurrection. But our Catholic Order of Christian Funerals never uses such a term. In recent years people have declared, This is not a funeral but a celebration of someone’s life. But the truth is that it is a funeral. We are gathered not only because someone has lived but because someone has died. The paschal mystery is not just about resurrection. We affirm in the Creed that Jesus suffered, was crucified, was buried, descended to the dead, rose again and ascended into heaven. To bypass the suffering, the crucifixion, the burial is not authentic preaching. President George W. Bush began his speech at Friday’s Memorial Service with an important line. He reminded the congregation and the nation that we are here in the middle hour of our grief. Indeed it is the middle hour.

Certain people are to blame for this tragedy. Tyrants throughout history have led people to hatred by blaming evil and suffering not on God but on particular people. The grossest example of this in our own days of terror is found in statements made by the Rev. Jerry Falwell to the Rev. Pat Robertson on Sept. 13th’s 700 Club. Falwell claimed that God was mad.... I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Wayall of them who have tried to secularize AmericaI point the finger in their face and say, You helped this happen.’ Robertson replied, Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted their agenda at the highest levels of our government. When criticized for these remarks, Falwell gave a faint-hearted apology and claimed that his remarks were taken out of context. One can only pray that Falwell’s vile words were not echoed in any American pulpit; but considering the intolerance and the religious fanaticism of our times, we cannot be sure. One can, however, be sure that in the days following Sept. 11 many preachers urged their listeners not to blame all Muslims, all Middle-Eastern people for those who have defiled the teachings of the Koran.

It was the elders in the Christian community who were most moving in their appeals for a Gospel response to the terrorist attacks. Billy Graham admitted that I am an old man now...but I hold on to the hope with which I first began to preach. On Sunday, Sept. 16, Pope John Paul II, trembling and shaken, told the people, I pray that the Virgin Mary might help them [the Americans] not to fall into temptation of hatred and violence, but rather to commit themselves to justice and peace.

Some Guidelines

There is no one way to preach, especially in times of tragedy. But our Catholic liturgical and theological tradition, plus the wisdom that comes from a good pastoral sense can lead us to some guidelines:

l. Liturgy. We should all reflect on what the Order of Christian Funerals advises:

[The] homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord, as proclaimed in the Scripture readings. The homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand that the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life of the deceased and that these mysteries are active in their own lives as well. (No. 27)

That elegant statement will remind us why we are in the pulpit in a time of tragedy and death. Of course we are not there to preach a eulogy but to proclaim the paschal mystery of Christ, the paschal mystery of our beloved dead, and our own paschal mystery. We heard a marvelous example of this preaching by Michael Duffy, O.F.M., at the funeral of his friar friend, Mychal Judge, O.F.M., the beloved chaplain who was killed while anointing a fireman at the collapsed World Trade Center. Father Duffy proclaimed: What a wonderful way to die! Mike was at the center of things, he was praying to God, and he was helping others.

2. Scripture. The 1982 U.S. Catholic bishops’ document Fulfilled in Your Hearing reminded us that in a homily the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures (No. 20). Often in homilies preached on special occasions, preachers ignore the proclaimed Scriptures because they feel their own ideas are primary. Instead of relying only on our own feeble words and images, we must learn to interpret our sad times and tragic experiences through the words and images of the proclaimed Scriptures. The homily preached by George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on Sept. 14 is a fine example of interpreting life through the Scriptures proclaimed. The archbishop said, I am hopeful for the people of America: hopeful that as ruins are rebuilt, so also a shaken people will be restored. He creatively drew upon the words of Isaiah, first spoken at a time of disaster and despair in the life of his own people.

3. People. The homily must never be my homily but a homily of the gathered faithful. Preachers must pay attention to the mood of the assembly. Billy Graham was most pastoral in his sermon at the National Cathedral. He lovingly told the people that God understands your anger. He also was not afraid to go beyond the acknowledgment of anger and boldly proclaim that God can be trusted.... He is a God of mercy and love and not the author of evil. Some liturgists (David N. Power) and some theologians (Mary Catherine Hilkert) have reminded us of the tradition of preaching as a lament, as naming the pain and revealing the tears. Once again, there are times when we must not be so anxious to fast-forward to Easter Sunday.

4. Christ as our Compassion. What still has not penetrated our pulpits are the insights of some contemporary theologians who have meditated deeply on the Jesus of Golgotha and offered us a Jesus who suffers with us and who is our Compassion. Some, like Jürgen Moltmann, quote from the novel Night, written by the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

The S.S. hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp.The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. Where is God? Where is he? someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in a noose after a long time, I heard a voice within myself answer, Where is he? He is here, he is hanging on the gallow....

5. Mystery. Appalling statements are sometimes heard in funeral homiliese.g., God needed another angel in heaven and that is why she died. Preachers offer a petty God and give the impression that the preacher actually knows the will of God! I was touched not only by the humility but the good theology Billy Graham preached when, concerning the reality of evil, he said: I really don’t know the answer totally to my satisfaction. But Graham went on to profess boldly his belief that our God is a God of mercy and not of evil.

Karl Rahner’s final answer to the problem of evil was an appeal to faith and to the mystery of God: The incomprehensibility of suffering is part of the incomprehensibility of God. Rahner was not afraid to admit that indeed, suffering is the form...in which the incomprehensibility of God himself appears.

We must not be afraid to preach mystery. We do not have the power to end evil, suffering and death. But we do have the grace that comes from the paschal mystery which invites us to pick up the shattered pieces of our world and make something holy out of them.

Robert P. Waznak, S.S., a professor emeritus at Washington Theological Union, Washington, D.C., is the author of An Introduction to the Homily (Liturgical Press, 1998).

Comments

(Rev.) Joseph T. Nolan | 1/26/2007 - 10:42am
Robert P. Waznak, S.S., is going by the book with his criticism of the term Mass of Resurrection instead of the official designation, Mass of Christian Burial (10/8). It is the people and their pastors who made that change, and with good reason. The church shifted in its funeral rites from black to white vestments, covers the coffin in white, threw out the old tallow candles, and gave up the Dies Irae. People have obviously understood all this as a shift to an emphasis on resurrection. It is an emphasis that has been badly needed. Of course “there is a time to mourn,” but that usually comes later, and what we have not had is a strong foundation for a resurrection faith. The priest should build this with the homily; the eulogist should give thanks for the lift we have shared. Father Waznak also objects to calling a funeral the celebration of someone’s life. But what else would you call Chicago’s great farewell in the cathedral for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin? And sadly now there are thousands for whose lives we wish to give thanks (and celebrate) as we commend them to God.

John R. Donahue, S.J. | 1/26/2007 - 10:34am
While I have great appreciation for the article by Robert P. Waznak, S.S., “Preaching Faith in the Midst of Tragedy” (10/8), and recommended it enthusiastically to a class, I must demur from his comments (Letters, 10/29) on The Word for Oct. 8. Till proven otherwise I am willing to admit that the quote attributed to Karl Barth may not be found in his writings. I have, however, found it quoted by eminent theologians such as George Lindbeck of Yale, and I consulted Claude Welch, former president and dean of the Graduate Theological Union and pre-eminent living historian of modern Protestant theology. He said that is was probably part of the oral tradition. Not everything a teacher says spanning two generations appears in print, so the “multiple attestation” may argue that, even if not the ipsissima verba of Barth, the quote may represent his position, which Father Waznak also denies.

Mr. Welch stated that the quotation was “certainly consistent with his [Barth’s] attitude” and called attention to Barth’s engagement with the religious socialists, especially L. Ragaz, his stand against the Nazi’s and his role in the Barmen Declaration. Welch also mentioned that Barth had his students draw up a “synchronous chart” of world and cultural events for whatever period they were studying (see Welch’s chapter in Engel and Wyman, eds., Revisioning the Past: Prospects in Historical Theology, 1992).

Barth truly believed in preaching the Bible, but also in bringing the Bible to bear on real human problems. Finally, in mentioning Karl Barth as a “great theologian,” I did not mean to slight Karl Rahner, whom I have often cited in The Word. Even a rich Rahnerian stew could benefit from a soupçon of Barth.

Jonathan St. Andre, T.O.R. | 1/26/2007 - 10:15am
As an American and a Franciscan friar preparing for the priesthood, I continue to grapple with the tension between war and peace. I want to thank America for devoting your Oct. 8 issue to this pressing and relevant issue. I found the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir’s article (“What Can Be Done? What Should Be Done?) extremely insightful and balanced. I can relate to his call for a prudent and well thought-out response. He penetrates to the heart of many of the deeper issues at stake.

I also benefitted from the article of Robert P. Waznak, S.S., regarding preaching in the midst of this crisis. His words reminded me of the power that words carry in the midst of such tragic experiences. I hope to be able to learn from those pastoral ministers who have used the proclamation of the word as a means of communicating a sense of the mystery of unexplainable events and the hope and consolation that the Gospel offers.

Finally, I was moved by the personal reflection of James Martin, S.J., on his experience as a chaplain in the midst of the wreckage, “World Trade Center Journal.” Reading about his experience reminded me of the power that individuals can have in bringing Christ to the most broken of places. I was moved with a sense of pride in reading how Father Martin and his colleagues made themselves available to all in need.

Peter Barbernitz | 1/20/2002 - 4:59pm
I would like to participate in the discussion regarding the preaching in our parishes after the events of September 11th.

I was not scheduled to preach on the Sunday immediately following the tragedy. I did preach on the Sunday following that - with readings that were sharply focused on social justice. The prophet's call to us to stop exploiting the poor led me to explore in my homily how unfettered capitalism wreaks havoc in 'third world' countries. I lightly connected the anger of much of the world at American arrogance and obliviousness to September 11th. I challenged my congregation to re-think their assumptions about the way our world economy works without haranguing them. Many parishioners welcomed what I said and some hated it. Those who hated it told me that they had come to church that morning seeking words of comfort for their pain and found instead my personal political agenda. I struggled to listen to them without being defensive.

In hindsight my parish did not respond well to the tragedy in those early weeks. No parishioner of ours was killed at the Pentagon though dozens work there and lost acquaintances. Some parishioners clearly were grieving more deeply than we realized. We should have done more in those first weeks to comfort them. Why couldn't we?

One reason was the overwhelming media coverage - it went on 24 hours a day, day after day. The same video and commentary footage was relentlessly repeated. A bit of 'new news' grafted onto what was already known passed for a major story. I know that I got to a point where I could not stand to hear about it, watch it, or read about it any more. The last thing I wanted to do was to reflect on its meaning and preach about it. I should have been able to push through this exhaustion with the topic but I couldn't.

A second and more difficult reason - whose pain are we talking about? The monolithic and transparent parish of old bears no resemblance to St. Camillus in Silver Spring. Our diversity in race, income, language, and age means that any assumptions about what our parishioners are feeling are going to miss the mark for many or most. One quick example: some of our parishioners are low-income men and women who are in this country without documentation. Their jobs in hotels and restaurants were tenuous before September 11th and they disappeared almost overnight. They are in a great deal of pain - they cannot use the immigration system to become legal as they used to be able to do (with difficulty) and they are out of work besides. Their pain is very different, however, from the pain of white, middle class persons like me whose stable and comfortable world has been shattered. Whose pain do I address when I look out a sea of very different faces ready to give an 8-minute homily? I should have found a way to address it all, but I couldn't. A third reason we hesitated and failed, I think, was based on a reluctance to offer superficial comfort. It is better to simply say, "I am very sorry about your loss" and to stop than it is to continue and deliver platitudes. We should be capable of deeper words of comfort but I found them hard to find in those days.

Finally, our training is at least partially responsible for our good and bad performance. It is so ingrained in me to preach from the text and only from the text that I rarely even consider the possibility of doing something else! I think that this very fundamental insistence rooted in our homiletics training is responsible for helping to gradually raise the quality of preaching in our Catholic parishes but it comes at the cost of reducing our ease with responding to external events and other situations. I hate preaching on Mother's Day, Fourth of July, and similar days because of the normal incongruity between the readings and the 'theme'. I should have broken free and reacted but I couldn't.

Should've, would've, could've . . .. I'm trying to learn from my failu

Peter Barbernitz | 1/20/2002 - 4:59pm
I would like to participate in the discussion regarding the preaching in our parishes after the events of September 11th.

I was not scheduled to preach on the Sunday immediately following the tragedy. I did preach on the Sunday following that - with readings that were sharply focused on social justice. The prophet's call to us to stop exploiting the poor led me to explore in my homily how unfettered capitalism wreaks havoc in 'third world' countries. I lightly connected the anger of much of the world at American arrogance and obliviousness to September 11th. I challenged my congregation to re-think their assumptions about the way our world economy works without haranguing them. Many parishioners welcomed what I said and some hated it. Those who hated it told me that they had come to church that morning seeking words of comfort for their pain and found instead my personal political agenda. I struggled to listen to them without being defensive.

In hindsight my parish did not respond well to the tragedy in those early weeks. No parishioner of ours was killed at the Pentagon though dozens work there and lost acquaintances. Some parishioners clearly were grieving more deeply than we realized. We should have done more in those first weeks to comfort them. Why couldn't we?

One reason was the overwhelming media coverage - it went on 24 hours a day, day after day. The same video and commentary footage was relentlessly repeated. A bit of 'new news' grafted onto what was already known passed for a major story. I know that I got to a point where I could not stand to hear about it, watch it, or read about it any more. The last thing I wanted to do was to reflect on its meaning and preach about it. I should have been able to push through this exhaustion with the topic but I couldn't.

A second and more difficult reason - whose pain are we talking about? The monolithic and transparent parish of old bears no resemblance to St. Camillus in Silver Spring. Our diversity in race, income, language, and age means that any assumptions about what our parishioners are feeling are going to miss the mark for many or most. One quick example: some of our parishioners are low-income men and women who are in this country without documentation. Their jobs in hotels and restaurants were tenuous before September 11th and they disappeared almost overnight. They are in a great deal of pain - they cannot use the immigration system to become legal as they used to be able to do (with difficulty) and they are out of work besides. Their pain is very different, however, from the pain of white, middle class persons like me whose stable and comfortable world has been shattered. Whose pain do I address when I look out a sea of very different faces ready to give an 8-minute homily? I should have found a way to address it all, but I couldn't. A third reason we hesitated and failed, I think, was based on a reluctance to offer superficial comfort. It is better to simply say, "I am very sorry about your loss" and to stop than it is to continue and deliver platitudes. We should be capable of deeper words of comfort but I found them hard to find in those days.

Finally, our training is at least partially responsible for our good and bad performance. It is so ingrained in me to preach from the text and only from the text that I rarely even consider the possibility of doing something else! I think that this very fundamental insistence rooted in our homiletics training is responsible for helping to gradually raise the quality of preaching in our Catholic parishes but it comes at the cost of reducing our ease with responding to external events and other situations. I hate preaching on Mother's Day, Fourth of July, and similar days because of the normal incongruity between the readings and the 'theme'. I should have broken free and reacted but I couldn't.

Should've, would've, could've . . .. I'm trying to learn from my failu