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9/11 and the Universal Church

September 11, 2017

“Where were you when the world stopped turnin’ that September day?” – Alan Jackson

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” – Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed

 

One could be forgiven for wondering what possible connection exists between a country song writer singing about America’s anguish on 9/11/2001 and the Creed of the Church Fathers. Yet my experience of Catholicism in the aftermath of that Tuesday, testified to the truth of that formulation in the Creed.

 

When 9/11 occurred, I was on the verge of beginning my undergraduate studies at Northwestern and pursuing an officer’s commission through the Army ROTC program. In an instant, my future military service went from a peacetime one, to a wartime. My Army experience would soon take me to the frozen north of Alaska and to the windswept and scorching “Cradle of Civilization” – Iraq. I did not know then, that during this journey, I would experience the universality (the catholicity) of the Church in such profound ways.

 

The Church’s liturgical calendar accompanies us throughout the year, taking the time to step back from the monotonous time of daily life, Chronos, and enter into God’s time, Kairos. Throughout two deployments in Iraq, I found the liturgical calendar to be the most effective and beneficial way to track the passage of time. Traditionally the Church’s liturgical calendar with its seasons, solemnities, and feasts all helped to direct the believer’s thoughts towards God and salvation. In our post-Christian West, we’ve lost that, but in Iraq, I found myself moving from Sunday to Sunday: from awaiting Christ during Advent to celebrating His birth at Christmas, from observing the penitential season of Lent and walking with Our Lord through His Passion to rejoicing at His Resurrection. The liturgical seasons became my companions along the way, connecting me to others throughout the past who marked the passing of days by the Church’s time.

 

From February to August 2006, my brigade was deployed to Mosul, Iraq. Mosul is the capital of Ninawa Province, and if that name is familiar, it is because in the heart of Mosul lies the ruins of Ancient Nineveh. In the center of the city sat[1] the tomb of the Prophet Jonah. In the 8th century B.C. the Prophet Jonah came to Nineveh to prophesy to its inhabitants, resulting in their repentance.

 

Just outside of Mosul sat[2] St. Elijah’s monastery founded in the 6th century A.D. Christianity in Mosul dates to the travels of St. Thomas the Apostle and Christians have called this place home ever since.

 

On Pentecost, our brigade’s Catholic chaplain celebrated Mass in the ruins of the monastery in Latin. It was moving to be praying the Mass where monks for a millennium made their offering to God.  During the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are connected across time and space with the Sacrifice of Christ and with the Church throughout the whole world. In that place, time and space felt compressed and the history of the Church felt a little less big.

 

Both the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska and the Archdiocese of the Military Services that provides priests for military units, are considered mission territories. The availability of priests in the missions is not a given and Sunday can pass without recourse to the Mass. In Alaska, my parish priest was a native of Poland. In the Army, my units were served by a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a native of Poland. It is a testimony to the universality of the Church and Her Sacraments, that nationality and language means nothing. I experienced many a Sacrament of Penance in English, with the absolution in Polish.

 

Many times, during my second deployment, we had no priest, so we gathered and prayed together a Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest. In these celebrations we opened in prayer, proclaimed the readings, reflected silently, before closing with the Our Father. While we did not have the Eucharist or a priest’s blessing, we did leave a little more spiritually charged, then when we entered.  On some Sundays, it was an intimate gathering, the battalion commander and myself; yet, two were gathered, and He was there, not in the Eucharist, but in Spirit. On other days, Ugandans, Filipinos, and others enriched our gathering.

“Where were you when the World stopped turnin’ that September Day?” September 11th was a day of deep loss and pain for many. It is indelibly seared into our consciousness, but it also led me on a journey that would deepen my understanding of God’s time, Kairos, and the universality of Christ’s Church.

 

 

 

 

[1] ISIS destroyed the tomb of Jonah on 24 July 2014 as idolatrous

 

[2] ISIS destroyed the ruins of the monastery sometime in August or September of 2014

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