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21 December 2012


The Canessa Commentary

NEWTOWN, Conn. -- 

There's this photo -- I've searched near and far for it, but can't find it -- where the people seen in this photo, taken Sept. 11, 2001, were fused together with a facsimile of Jesus, with Jesus's hands and arms extended, as if he were welcoming them into his kingdom. In the days following 9/11, the photo made its rounds, then on e-mail, since there wasn't social media back then.

The symbolism was striking. The people were real. And it was a rallying cry for those of us who were in great emotional pain following the terrorist attacks of that awful day. The idea was simple -- and it was one we used, as teachers at a Catholic school -- to answer the question the teens were bound to ask us: "How does a good and gracious God allow such awful things to happen?"

As evinced by the picture, the answer was simple.

God was right there, helping countless thousands of people. By some estimates, some 45,000 people were saved that day -- while nearly 3,000 died. And were it not for the grace of God, there could have been even more deaths.

God was right there, as firefighters, cops and EMTs rescued those who could be rescued.

God was right there, as the journalists who stood at the base of the Twin Towers were able to run -- like they've never run before -- to safety, though covered in soot, ash and other substances.

He was right there as thousands of people from all over the world ascended upon New York to help with the rescue, recovery and clean-up.

He was there the entire time.

And yet what does one say about God's presence to the families of the 343 firefighters who died that day? What does one say about God's presence to the families of the hundreds of employees at Cantor Fitzgerald who came to work that morning -- and who never returned? What does one say about God's presence that day to the Zadroga family, who lost a son because he breathed in -- likely without the use of so much as a medical face mask -- the toxic mix of chemicals in the days following the attacks because the EPA said the air in the area and at Grund Zero was safe to breathe?

What does one say?

What does one say about God's presence to my friend -- whose name I will not use here for the sake of privacy because he is a Roman Catholic priest -- who lost his two dearest friends on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and who very well may have himself perished that day had he not left the business world to go into the seminary?

What does one say?

And what now, following the attack and murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, does one say about God's presence to the families that lost a child, 6 or 7 years of age? What does one say about God's presence that day to the six families of teachers and administrators who lost their livest hat day?

It would be the easy route to say he was right there -- within the principal -- who gave her life trying to stop the perpetrator. It would be the easy route to say he was right there -- with the teacher who threw herself in front of the line of a spray of bullets so that her children might live. It would be the easy route to say he was right there in the little children who thought quickly enough to pray while huddled in the corner of a closet, while the madman was just outside the door, barking to get in, so that he might kill even more.

And it would be just as easy as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, to say he was right there, guiding hundreds of other kids and teachers out of the building to safety at a Newtown Fire Department firehouse just a few hundred yards away from the school.

That would be easy.

But why? Why was he there for a chosen some, whilst others were unable to escape the carnage? Why did six teachers not experience the hand of God, while the rest of the faculty and staff did? Why is it we say God was right there with those who survived, but not responsible, in the same breath, for allowing these who died to die?

I was near becoming a Jesuit father in 2001. I had a spiritual adviser. I was even an "SJa," or Jesuit Associate. Ask anyone who wanted to be a Jesuit and they'll tell you part of the thrill of being a Jesuit is being able to sign "SJ" after your name. And yet, 11 years thereafter, having decided it wasn't the right path for me, I'm having a really tough time dealing with this.

And I've found myself questioning, more and more, those responses we gave following the 9/11 terror attacks.

I'm finding more and more I can't give the same answer I did when I am asked: "Where was God for those children in Newtown?"

And I am finding there really is no easy answer.

And I'm finding that at age 38, just 11 years after I nearly gave up everything to be a Jesuit priest, I am still asking that question that even little kids often ask when tragedy hits, when lives are lost and when horrific events lead to these events.


There just is no easy answer.

And it's an answer we'll never get.



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