This article was originally published in the October 12, 2001 issue if Commonweal.
The toxic fumes were heavy, the traffic funereally light. I rode my bicycle up New York’s Tenth Avenue and cut in toward the church. In my backpack I had a Jerusalem Bible and a Kryptonite lock. Around my neck I had a yellow T-shirt, pulled up over my nose and mouth as though I were a pirate, not a lay preacher trying to find a few hundred words for catastrophe.
I was on the way to the weekly meeting of the Community of Sant’Egidio in a church on Manhattan’s West Side. The community’s story has already been told in these pages (see November 18, 1994): its founding in Rome after the worldwide student uprisings of 1968; its growth to thirty thousand members in Italy and another thirty thousand abroad; its mediation during civil wars in Africa; its nightly meetings in Santa Maria in Trastevere, which make the ancient Roman basilica seem like a neighborhood church again.
Our group in New York has half-a-dozen members. We arrange folding chairs in a semicircle in the far corner of the church, beneath a spotlit mosaic of Christ proffering his Sacred Heart. We sing, recite, pray, and petition the Lord—though the expression seems awfully grand for our petitions, which we read from Xeroxed fliers now worn as soft as vellum. One of us reads a Bible text and gives a brief commentary on it.
Wednesday, September 12, it was my turn to preach. The day before, terrorists had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the city was staggering. The offices where I work had been closed. Police had cordoned off the downtown neighborhood where I live, and the streets were quiet, expectant. At home, stunned like everybody else, I browsed in the Bible.
Now, in the church, I read the biblical text I’d chosen: Matthew, chapter 2, verses one through eighteen—the massacre of the innocents. I explained why I had chosen it. People on the street were comparing the Trade Center blast to Armageddon. The airwaves were crowded with God-talk. The mayor, fumbling for words of succor at a press conference, had suggested that God’s will was somehow behind those who got out alive. Before long lawyers would be invoking the “act of God” clause in insurance policies and breached contracts. It seemed wise to avoid speaking too confidently about God just now.