It was 4:30AM in New York City and in Washington DC on the morning of September 12, 2001. More than just a new day was dawning, however. It was also the dawning of a new era. Just the day before, on September 11th, the worst terrorist attack in United States history had left 2,977 dead, though in those initial hours it was feared that the death toll would be even higher.
Across the Atlantic it was 10:30AM in Rome. As it was a Wednesday, Pope John Paul II was just about to begin his weekly General Audience for the assembled pilgrims, with scores of Americans among them. The day before, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls had issued a statement about the tragic events saying that the Holy Father “Prayed to God to give eternal repose to the souls of the many, many victims and courage and comfort to their families.”
That morning of September 12th, the Holy Father spoke with all of the authority of the Vicar of Christ as he addressed a shocked, scared and grieving world. Pope St. John Paul’s address in its entirety:
“I cannot begin this audience without expressing my profound sorrow at the terrorist attacks which yesterday brought death and destruction to America, causing thousands of victims and injuring countless people. To the President of the United States and to all American citizens I express my heartfelt sorrow. In the face of such unspeakable horror we cannot but be deeply disturbed. I add my voice to all the voices raised in these hours to express indignant condemnation, and I strongly reiterate that the ways of violence will never lead to genuine solutions to humanity’s problems.”
“Yesterday was a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity. After receiving the news, I followed with intense concern the developing situation, with heartfelt prayers to the Lord. How is it possible to commit acts of such savage cruelty? The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. 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. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it.
“With deeply felt sympathy I address myself to the beloved people of the United States in this moment of distress and consternation, when the courage of so many men and women of good will is being sorely tested. In a special way I reach out to the families of the dead and the injured, and assure them of my spiritual closeness. I entrust to the mercy of the Most High the helpless victims of this tragedy, for whom I offered Mass this morning, invoking upon them eternal rest. May God give courage to the survivors; may he sustain the rescue-workers and the many volunteers who are presently making an enormous effort to cope with such an immense emergency. I ask you, dear brothers and sisters, to join me in prayer for them. Let us beg the Lord that the spiral of hatred and violence will not prevail. May the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Mercy, fill the hearts of all with wise thoughts and peaceful intentions.”