(The following is the text of the homily given by Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory at a Sept. 11, 2021 Memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C., marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.)

Pictures are symbols and powerful resources of the deepest meaning of reality. As Catholics, we know the power of sacred signs that achieve what they signify through the sacraments. When those of you who, like me, lived through the terror of those moments surrounding 9-11, we can now see, 20 years later, those images of destruction, and we can recall what we may have been doing and how we may continue to feel about that terrible tragedy that stunned our nation.

Shortly, we Americans will probably settle upon one or two images of the searing devastation that Hurricane Ida has caused throughout our nation, and those images will forever capture in our mind’s heart just what this disaster has meant for too many of our fellow citizens.

Each generation has its own such images and pictures. Ask some of our more senior colleagues and they might tell you of the picture of the 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting the coffin of his assassinated father and how much that poignant photograph told them about that tragedy. Ask even older friends and they might recall how the picture of an exuberant young sailor joyfully kissing a young nurse was the very image of happiness at the conclusion of the Second World War. Each age has its own images and pictures that somehow capture, as mere words fail to do, the depth of feeling of an entire generation in response to joy, tragedy, fear, hatred – or a whole range of human emotions.

We all will see forever in the smoldering flames that engulfed the World Trade Towers what sorrow 9-11 had and still captures for our entire nation and indeed for the world. There are many mementoes of that tragedy that are both personal and national in scope – parts of the fallen buildings, pieces of uniforms – buttons and badges, and of course those individual   items that hold special meaning for families and loved ones.

As the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians help us prayerfully to remember that dreadful event today, they also recall the Irish Claddagh rings that were found in great number at the sites of those attacks and are very touching memorials for all of us. These delicate Celtic rings that would ordinarily not have been able to endure the searing heat of the flames remain for many people the rich symbols of friendship, love, and loyalty that those rings embody. Therefore, they symbolize the enduring grace of those virtues that are so much in need today as our nation pauses to recall the events of those alarming moments 20 years ago.

We pause to remember the thousands of people whose lives were lost and their families who still grieve their passing. However, sorrow must not be the only emotion that touches our hearts today. We are also called to remember the strength of our nation that was so evident that day and in the days and weeks that followed. We recall the extraordinary dedication of first responders and even ordinary citizens who rose to the help and to the assistance of perfect strangers in need.

The 20th anniversary of 9-11 is not simply a moment for deep national mourning, but it is simultaneously a time for deep hope and pride in the courage and the strength of our nation in the face of such a tragic event. The spirit of bravery and unity that followed upon 9-11 are a source of honor for the people of this great land. We could use those very same virtues today as we continue to face other moments of challenge. 

However, as we meet today’s challenges, no matter how great they might be, so long as we do so together, united in mind, in heart and in spirit, we will be triumphant. We know that because 9-11 has given us, in addition to the sorrow it brought, a source of pride in the courage, the goodness and the dedication of the people of this nation. May that be a reminder to us all.