by Fr Richard G. Cipolla of the New York Purgatorial Society
One of the greatest pieces in Western literature is the Confessions of St Augustine. For Catholics this work is more than literature. It is the testament of faith of one of the most important writers of the Western tradition. It is the testament of faith of one of the most important figures in the Catholic tradition, tradition here with a capital T. What most people know about and have read in the Confessions is the history of Augustine’s conversion and the role of his mother Monica in that conversion. But equally as compelling in this seminal work of Western literature is Augustine’s thought on memory. We take memory for granted and often in an objective way, but if we pause to think about memory, its essence and its essential part of who each of us as a person, then we are faced with mystery. This is how Augustine begins the section of the Confession on memory:
“Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery, my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity… See how widely I have ranged, O Lord, searching for you in my memory. I have not found you outside it. For I have found nothing coming from you which I have not stored in my memory since the first time I learnt of you. Where I discovered the truth there I have found my God, truth itself, which from the time I learnt it, I have not forgotten.”
We come here on this day to remember, to remember an act of violence that seared the memory of this country, and in some way, the whole world. We come here to mourn those who died on 9/11, and to mourn is not possible without remembering. Each of us here has his own memory of 9/11. So many of us saw on television and other media the attack on the twin towers, the smoke billowing out from the first tower and then the second. And the probably the most searing image, the fall of the towers. The chaos, the disbelief, and the sight of the first responders, including at least one Catholic priest, entering a veritable holocaust. In the memory of some here and of many not here, there exists those family members who died in this tragic event. In the memory of some here, and this includes myself, knowing families who lost loved ones in this act of terrorism. And there are so very many who will never forget the images of the towers live on television and other media, burning and falling, a national tragedy that affected in some way every American.
And yet there are those who at the time of 9/11 who were very young, whose memories do not hold those images and the grief of the country. And there are now many who have no memories of this event, for they were born after 9/11 and so this event is for them just part of history, history that is the recording of events that are part of facts one learns but are not part of one’s deep memory of these events.
To know the facts of history is memorization. It is not memory. Memory in the deepest sense, what St Augustine was talking about, is a mystery. It is not merely a call to remembrance. It is much more like a making present of something important in my past. When I remember someone whom I have loved like my mother or father, that act of remembrance is impossible without my memory. I remember their faces, their voices, their dedication to me and my siblings, their presence at the big family gatherings, especially Christmas Eve. But this act of remembrance is still only in my memory. My parents do not re-enter this world of time and space by my act of remembering. But what is true is that what is made really present in this time and space for me in a real way is the love that bound us while they were here on earth. That love is something real and does not come from memory. The presence of that love in the here and now in a real way teaches us what Christians believe about the act of remembering and the reality of love.
What we do here this evening is certainly to remember the tragedy of 9/11 and to remember those who died in that tragedy. But Catholics do not have memorial services. Memorial services are not Catholic. They are essentially, even if they occur in religious services, attempts to come to terms with death in a secular way, secular even if in a religious context. Speakers come forward to offer remembrances of the person who has died, often with praise, sometime with humor, most often with affection. And that is a good thing to do.
But this is not what Catholics do. Catholics offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for those they have loved and even for those they have not known to love personally. Catholics do not gather in the face of death to merely remember. As I say this, I know how Catholic funeral Masses have degraded to mere remembrance in the most sentimental and therefore unreal way. And everyone, despite the outward appearances, always recognize fakery and denial of truth, the truth of death as a result of sin. But the perversion of a truth always has at its heart the truth itself. And that truth is the person of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and who rose on the third day and has conquered death for those who believe in him as Lord and Savior.
What we do here this evening in the offering of the Requiem Mass for the faithful departed especially those who died on 9/11in New York, in the Pentagon, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is not to remember them in a secular sense. We come here to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for them, and the heart of the Mass is the memory of God, that is, on this altar Christ himself is offered to the Father, the Son is offered to the Father, just as the Son was offered to the Father in the sacrifice of the Cross. It is where the Father remembers the sacrifice of the Son and accepts the sacrifice as he did on the first Good Friday, where memory of the infinite God is pierced by the Cross of his Son. And the act of remembrance of the Father is an act of grace, grace that pours forth from this altar that touches those who have died in a way we cannot know, for the Mass is the kiss of time with eternity and that kiss is the kiss of the grace of God, that is, the kiss of the love of the Holy Trinity for those men and women who have died and are in eternity and are yet deeply linked by love, that love that cannot be quenched by death, for it is the love of the Cross itself.
The beauty of this Mass is very real. Not merely the music that supports what is going on here, which is very important. This beauty is the real antidote to that sentimentality that has debased and eroded Catholic faith for half a century. For what we celebrate here is the beauty of the God who loved us so much that he died for us and whoever believes in Him though he die will live forever.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.