'We Are People of Life' : A sermon for Barbara Olson--and for America.

Father Franklyn McAfee


(Editor's note: Father McAfee delivered this sermon at a memorial service Saturday for Barbara Olson, who was a passenger on United Flight 77 when hijackers flew it into the Pentagon Tuesday.)

I walked a mile with gladness
She chattered all the way
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say

I walked a mile with sorrow
And ne'er a word said she
But oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me

It is most appropriate that we gather for this memorial Mass for Barbara Olson in this cathedral, dedicated to St. Thomas More, a lawyer and a government official. He reminds us that the legal profession, and work in government, are noble professions.

It also appropriate that we assemble to offer this Mass for Barbara and her family on the day which in the Catholic liturgical calendar is set aside to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Lady of Sorrows.

In the final moments of that awful drama, we all know that Barbara called her husband, Ted, on her phone, to inform him of what was going on, to ask for his advice, and tell him of her love. We heard them talk about this last night, on CNN and on Fox.

In imminent danger, at the very door of death, she turns to her husband, whom she trusts. Many poems can be written about love, but this surpasses them all. We can only imagine what went through Ted's mind as his wife talked with him, especially since he was aware of the attacks in New York.

Ted might tell us what he thought, and he did so on the TV interviews, but there is no way he could convey to us what he felt, and what anguish and anxiety was piercing his heart. His wife was about to die, and there was absolutely nothing he could do. He was absolutely powerless. He was solicitor general of the United States, and he could do nothing for the woman he loved.

Ted, there is someone who understood your feelings, who knows your pain and sadness.

The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows honors the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, who stood next to the cross on which hung her own flesh and blood, nailed there by violent men.

She saw her own son dying, and she was unable to help. Only a parent or spouse can understand and know that pain. Mary stood there unable to do anything. She wanted to reach up and bandage his wounds, soothe his pain, wipe his brow, kiss away the hurts.

She was his mother. She would reach up and take him off that cross. But she could not. She was powerless.

Rightfully, the church has traditionally placed on the lips of the Virgin Mary the words of scripture: "All ye who pass by the way, stop and consider if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow. Do not call me Naomi [which means "beautiful"], call me Mara [which means "bitter"], for the Lord hath quite filled me with bitterness."

I cannot explain the madness that took place on Tuesday. For what we saw with our own eyes is the face of evil. And evil cannot logically be explained because, as those of you who are steeped in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas know, evil--malum--is nihil. It is nothing.

Since God is existence itself--God told Moses, "I am who am"--evil would be nonbeing. Nothingness. And to confront nothingness is to come face-to-face with unspeakable horror.

We can, however, understand how people would be compelled to murder with enthusiasm so many people.

A terrorist is not born. Terrorists are made, with every conscious decision they make in life to hate, to choose death rather than life.

Remember Terry Waite, the Anglican envoy who negotiated with terrorists for the release of the hostages in Lebanon, and who himself became a hostage, and suffered? He later wrote, "The terrible thing about terrorism is that ultimately it destroys those who practice it. Slowly, but surely, as they try to extinguish life in others, the light within them dies."

And where there is no light, there is darkness. Nothing.

St. John, in his first Epistle, answers the common question, "How can anyone do something like this?" He tells us how. He says that "anyone who hates his brother is in darkness. He walks in the dark, and has no idea of where he is going, because the darkness has made him blind."

Speculation is all around on who is responsible for the attacks on our country. With amazing speed, we have identified the terrorists who took over the planes, and we probably know who masterminded it. But who is really behind it all?

We are speaking of an enormity of hate and evil here, for these were evil acts. But evil is not something. Evil is someone. Satan.

St. Paul warns us in his Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 6: "We are not contending against flesh and blood, brothers, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of the present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness."

Satan has best been described by a mystic. She said of him: "He in whom there is no love." That's something hard for us to comprehend. "He in whom there is no love at all." Not a drop of love. "He in whom there is no love." Absolute hate. Darkness. Nothing.

Scripture calls him the father of lies. He is the cause of division, hate and rebellion.

Christ had a name for him also. He called him, "Murderer."

A handful of terrorists commandeered four planes, crashing three of them, including Flight 77, into symbolic buildings, killing in the process thousands of real flesh-and-blood people with families. These terrorists gave their lives, and took so the lives of so many others, with no hesitation at all. Have Satan and death won?

What did Americans do when they heard the shocking news and saw the devastation? Did they take to the streets with signs and placards, marching with fists upraised, saying, "Death to terrorists!" No, they did not.

What did they do? They took to the streets--in search of places to give blood. In fact, in some places so many of them that there was a seven-hour wait to give blood. They took to the streets to bring food to those who were rescuing people. They took to the streets to go to church, to hold candlelight vigils, to pray.

At my own parish at St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls, we hastily organized a Holy Hour for Wednesday evening. We had no way to advertise it, so we spread the news by word of mouth, hoping to get a group of people there to pray. More than 400 people showed up. And after it was over, I went out to greet the people, and nobody came. I went in, took off my vestments, went out again, and nobody came out. They stayed 10 minutes in the church praying. Every one of them! Praying for the nation, for those who died and who were injured, for those who were missing, and praying for Barbara.

The last days in my parish, and I am certain in other parishes, I know it's true here, the phone's been ringing off the hook, people not asking--demanding spiritual help. Confession. Masses.

As Dr. Billy Graham said [Friday] at the National Cathedral, perhaps a spiritual rebirth is taking place. There's something happening in America, and it's something good. God pulls good out of evil.

Then there are those more than 50 New York policemen, and 300 firemen, who are probably dead. They gave their lives to save others. What heroism! What love! Greater love no man has than to lay down his life for those he loves. In the midst of the rubble, signs of love, signs of the power of life, the finger of God writing straight with crooked lines.

During the devastation of World War II, Pope Pius XII said, "The future belongs to those who love, not to those who hate."

Barbara Olson, full of life, cheerful, laughing, smiling, loving, was the opposite of the dark powers that brought her death. But their evil deed was in vain.

We are people of life. And no terrorist, no matter how powerful, can take that away. As Pope John Paul II has said, "When God gives life, he gives it forever." We believe in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. We Catholics also believe that the soul is immortal; it cannot be destroyed. We believe that Barbara Olson is alive, not just in our hearts and in our memories, but actually alive, fully conscious and aware. Now.

We know this because Christ is risen from the dead. And if it isn't true, if Barbara is really gone and gone forever, if you will never see her smile again, or hear her laughter, then this is all playacting. And I had better go and get another job.

Because there is an empty tomb in Jerusalem, our hearts, though mourning, are full today. We will see Barbara again.

Death cannot win against life.

Christians are those who, in the midst of December, believe in Spring.

I will always remember--I regret not keeping the picture--a picture that was on the front of the former Washington Star. It was a picture of a state-of-the-art road, I think it was in St. Louis, Missouri. It was made to be able to withstand all the force that could be brought against the road: reinforced concrete, meshed steel, whatever you do to make a road that won't crack. But a microscopic fissure appeared, and grew larger and larger and larger, until there was a large crack in that impenetrable road. And through all that concrete pushed up one small blade of grass in search of the sun. The power of life.

My fellow blades of grass. I have my own personal opinion. I think scripture scholars would not agree with me, but. . . I believe it was on a balmy, beautiful late April afternoon, after a particularly long, harsh winter, that St. Paul went out and sat on a bank by a stream. He could hear the sound of the frozen stream begin to crack and the water to rush again. He heard the song of the birds once more. He looked up and beheld the trees once thought dead, breaking forth in their greenery. He saw the flowers coming up from the once-frozen earth.

I believe Paul saw all of this, and was so moved that he picked up his stylus and wrote those words which have become the Christian's battle cry ever since; the words that should be on your hearts and lips as you leave this cathedral today:

"Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?"

Father McAfee is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Great Falls, Va.

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