Father, forgive them

Just after dawn, Father Seamus Murtagh got up to write his Sunday meditation.

The appointed text was the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of St. Luke, with its twin themes of repentance and forgiveness. He decided his flock at St. Ann's Catholic Church in West Palm Beach, Fla., would hear about forgiveness. He wrote a simple title on his work -- "Father, Forgive Them."

It was Tuesday morning. Soon the events crashed into his prayers.

"As I pondered the news, one of my reactions was -- I must change that message," said Murtagh, his gentle Irish voice tight with emotion as hepreached at an interfaith service Tuesday night. "So I sat down to re-write the message. Then I asked myself, 'What am I doing? Is it OK for me to speak about forgiveness in the abstract, if we are afraid to do it in the concrete?

"I decided that the message stays the same ... We need to really believe what we believe about our God and that it is in forgiveness that we are healed and made whole. We are transformed ourselves in the act of forgiving, more, perhaps, than the people who are forgiven."

There were thousands of services held in the hours after the terrorist attacks, with stunned people reciting ancient words about ancient mysteries. This was merely one of those services. There were businessmen from the nearby Trump Towers. There were young people who seemed to have come from the beach. The kneelers at the historic Holy Trinity Episcopal Church were lined with mothers, fathers and children who had watched hell unfold on television.

When all is said and done, said Murtagh, Americans must be driven "kicking and screaming into the word of forgiveness" while shunning the "deep satisfaction of revenge, of closure through getting even." Those touched by the tragedy mustremember that God is "a God of forgiveness, a God of peace and a God of justice."

There were stories to tell at each and every prayer service, as global terrorism lurched into the age of the cell telephone and the World Wide Web. From coast to coast, everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone who had received a call that answered an anguished prayer or carved a wound into the soul.

At this service, Rabbi Howard Shapiro of Temple Israel turned to Hebrew for a prayer of thanksgiving that his son's daily subway trip through the World Trade Center had ended in safety. Then the verses he read from Isaiah included these sobering words: "All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower ofthe field. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever."

The reading from St. Matthew was almost hard to bear: "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all of these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

Afterwards, I called Father Thaddeus Barnum, who wrote a book entitled "Where is God in Suffering and Tragedy?" about his experiences as a counselor inside the crash site of USAir flight 427 outside of Pittsburgh. Those memories washed over him again Tuesday, a flashback to days that changed his life forever.

"There is so, so much that we have all taken for granted. It's the little things, the little gifts, the little details of daily life with our lovedones," he said, piecing together his thoughts for his next trip into a pulpit. "Scripture tells us to love God with all of our hearts and all of our minds and to love each other."

"That is what this is all about. This reminds us that we are too busy to love God and we are even too busy to love each other. We take all of that for granted. We belong to God and we belong to each other. This makes us see that, whether we want to or not."