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Commentary: Recalling the message delivered on 9/11

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Message delivered

In a message from a burning building, in a call from a doomed airplane, the words were repeated again and again.

The second tower of the World Trade Center bursts into flames after being hit by a hijacked airplane in New York in this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo.  (CNS photo/Sara K. Schwittek, Reuters)
The second tower of the World Trade Center bursts into flames after being hit by a hijacked airplane in New York in this Sept. 11, 2001, file photo. (CNS photo/Sara K. Schwittek, Reuters)

It was a message from the point of death. It was a call from people engaged in workday lives who minutes before had no clue the ordinary morning hour would be their last.

The last words from the victims in the burning World Trade Center and the hijacked airplanes on Sept. 11 came from people whose lives had dwindled from abundant possibility to the imminent certainty of death.

The terrorism had focused their minds on essential things. They wanted to do one last thing with their life. They wanted to deliver a message.

“I love you,” they said.

They called their spouses. They called their parents. They called their children. They called their friends.

“I love you,” they said.

They didn’t ask, “Do you love me?”

They didn’t say, “Take care of the business.”

They didn’t scream, “Take revenge.”

Facing death, they reached out to give the gift of themselves.

They used their last moments to establish the most basic human contact.

“I love you.”

They were helpless. They were dying. They had a call to make. They got to the heart of the matter eloquently.

“I love you.”

In the face of their powerlessness, it wasn’t a cry for help. In the face of their death, it wasn’t a call for mercy.

“I love you” was their summation.

It’s difficult to imagine receiving such a tragic call. It’s harder to imagine discovering one on an answering machine. But the calls went out and the stunned recipients repeated the message they received to the media so the whole world could hear it.

“I love you.”

Consider the context: Fanatical terrorists plot a mass murder tha’s diabolical in the extreme. Hate is the incentive and death the goal that unleashes explosions strong enough to break the Pentagon, demolish a plane and collapse 220 stories of office towers into a mangled heap.

But what word emerges from the victims? What emotion survives the fireball?

Love.

It’s an old message. Two thousand years ago, for instance, the Son of God left his own message for us in that symbol of his love, the cross.

“Love one another as I have loved you.”

To the point of death, to the point of his abject powerlessness on the cross, the Son of God was teaching us that we are all helpless in the finality of death, but from the saving grace of his death and resurrection we are called to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

We are called to establish community with each other as God established community with us. We are called to love one another.

That love can be a powerful solution to the challenges of our world. We love our neighbors, therefore we work for their well-being. We work for justice. We work for peace.

Love produces humility, not arrogance. Love teaches us to serve, not to dominate.

Love is the lesson.

Dialog Editor Joseph Ryan wrote the above commentary in September 2001, for The Catholic Standard and Times, the former newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where he was acting editor at the time.