By Mary Rezac
Catholic News Agency
VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News) — As three airliners smashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, at the time the director of the Vatican press office, delivered the news to Pope St. John Paul II.
“I remember that terrible afternoon as if it were yesterday. I called the Pope, who was at Castel Gandolfo, I gave him the news. He was shocked not only by the tragedy itself, but also because he could not explain how man could achieve this abyss of evil …” he recalled in a 2011 interview with Vatican Insider.
John Paul II, who had grown up to watch his native Poland overtaken first by Nazis and then by the Soviets, and who as pope navigated the dangerous international waters of the Cold War, was no stranger to tragedy and war.
Still, the terror attacks on the United States shook him deeply.
“He was deeply shaken, saddened. But I remember that he asked himself how so heinous an attack could happen. His dismay, in front of those images went beyond pain,” Navarro-Valls recalled.
“He stayed for short time in front of the TV. Then he retired to the chapel, which is only a few steps away from the TV room. And he remained there a long time in prayer. He also wanted to get in touch with George Bush, to communicate his support, his pain, his prayer. But it was not possible to contact the president, who for security reasons was flying on Air Force One.”
Instead, Pope John Paul II decided to send his message of condolences and assurance of prayers via telegram, and was among the first of the world leaders to do so that day.
“I hurry to express to you and your fellow citizens my profound sorrow and my closeness in prayer for the nation at this dark and tragic moment,” the Pope wrote.
In a 2011 article in the National Catholic Register, James Nicholson, who was the new United States ambassador to the Holy See in 2001, recalled his first meeting with John Paul II, just two days after the terror attacks.
“The first thing the pope said to me was how sorry he felt for my country, which had just been attacked, and how sad it made him feel. We next said a prayer together for the victims and their families.”
“Then the pope said something very profound and very revealing of his acute grasp of international terrorism. He said, ‘Ambassador Nicholson, this was an attack, not just on the United States, but on all of humanity.’ And, then he added, ‘We must stop these people who kill in the name of God.’”
September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday.
The next day, Wednesday, was when the pope was scheduled each week to address the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
While John Paul II normally used this as a time for catechesis on the family or other issues, he set everything aside on Sept. 12 to address the tragedy from which the world was still reeling.
“I cannot begin this audience without expressing my profound sorrow at the terrorist attacks which yesterday brought death and destruction to America, causing thousands of victims and injuring countless people,” the saint began.
“Yesterday was a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity. After receiving the news, I followed with intense concern the developing situation, with heartfelt prayers to the Lord,” he added. “How is it possible to commit acts of such savage cruelty? The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit.”
Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, he said, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth, he said.
Addressing the people of the United States specifically, he assured his spiritual closeness to the families of the dead and injured.
“I entrust to the mercy of the Most High the helpless victims of this tragedy, for whom I offered Mass this morning, invoking upon them eternal rest. May God give courage to the survivors; may he sustain the rescue-workers and the many volunteers who are presently making an enormous effort to cope with such an immense emergency.”