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Catholics see 'spiritual opportunity' in aftermath of terrorist attacks

Sunday, September 16, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sister Ann Shields was nervous when she got on the plane to fly to Pittsburgh, she told 3,000 people who had assembled to renew their Catholic faith at a FIRE rally yesterday in the A.J. Palumbo Center at Duquesne University.

But, after 29 years of speaking on faith, "I feel I've had 29 years of practice. Today begins the real thing. I would have walked here if I had to," Shields said.

"We've turned over a new page. It's a new chapter, a new time."

Her words reflected a belief that Tuesday's terrorist attacks blew open a door of great spiritual opportunity for the nation. FIRE rallies are named for a biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit and is the acronym for Faith Intercession Repentance and Evangelism.

"This isn't over," Shields told the assembly. "If Jesus has to bring America to its knees, he will do it. And it will be much better if we do it willingly."

Speakers urged Catholics not to allow faith to turn to spiritual pride or patriotism to arrogance. Shields expressed horror at radio talk show callers who wanted the United States to drop an atomic bomb on Afghanistan.

"Brothers and sisters, a Christian is going to have to look differently and act differently" than non-believers, she said. She urged them to meditate daily on the sixth chapter of Luke, where Jesus speaks of loving one's enemies.

Theologian Ralph Martin noted that yesterday was the Catholic feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, "when Mary stood before the cross and saw the unjust suffering inflicted on her son."

But Martin also urged Catholics to reflect on times when evil was committed in the name of their own faith, such as during the crusades.

The terrorists were religious people who thought they were serving God, Martin said. He quoted the Apostle Paul who wrote of those "who had a zeal for God but it was not filled with wisdom."

Evil distortions of religious faith "have happened in our own history as Catholics. It has happened in other religions," he said.

Martin believes there was demonic influence at work in the terrorists, but said the reasons for their actions cannot be dismissed that easily. While nothing justifies their actions, Americans should listen to what other terrorists have said about their own motives, he said. Martin is less moved by their expressed concern for Palestinians than by their critique of American culture.

"Something else the terrorists were saying disturbs me because it is partially true," Martin said. "They say American influence is undermining morality throughout the world."

Many of the movies, music and television that Americans lavish time and money on are destructive of families, faith and moral behavior, he said.

"We must not think in our nation that we are the only superpower. There is a higher power that we need to be obedient to," Martin said.

The World Trade Center was the symbol of American economic power and the Pentagon symbolized American military power, he said.

"Is there a message there about where our trust and faith should be?"

People at the conference said they took the message to heart.

Alex Joseph, 69, of St. Teresa of Avila parish in Perrysville, said Martin was "telling us to get serious -- that just because you call yourself a Catholic, a Christian or an American, doesn't mean you are always right," he said.

"It strikes me that this whole country, in order to learn to stand again, is going to its knees."

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