The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that God has the freedom to grant private revelations to persons of His choosing (n. 67), and that while these messages or visions are never equal in authority to Scripture and Tradition, they can—if authentic—offer us useful information and guidance. Some such alleged visionaries and prophets have supposedly been informed that certain well-known or notorious persons are in purgatory, and this was revealed in order that people might pray for them. It’s said, for instance, that the late Senator Edward Kennedy—who violated his Catholic faith by adamantly supporting abortion—sincerely repented on his deathbed, thereby escaping hell; it’s also claimed that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, as the result of many prayers offered for him before his execution, also repented and thereby saved his soul. Both of them are allegedly in purgatory, desperately in need of prayers for their spiritual cleansing and eventual entry into Heaven. It’s also said that there were so many prayers offered for the conversion of Saddam Hussein between the time of his capture and his execution that he was granted a great grace: he was shown the place awaiting him in hell, terrifying him so much that he begged God’s mercy. This saved his soul, but because of his innumerable horrible sins, he was allegedly consigned to the lowest, darkest corner of purgatory.
When I happen to think of Edward Kennedy or Timothy McVeigh, I say a Hail Mary for them—for our prayers do help those who suffer in purgatory, and it’s said that when we pray for specific persons there, they are personally aware of and grateful for it. However, I find it a little harder to pray for Saddam Hussein, who in some ways was as evil as anyone whoever lived. In fact, while I sometimes almost have to force myself to include him in my prayers, I do so simply because I know it’s pleasing to God. I remember that a day or two after the terrible events of 9-11, the Detroit Free Press had an editorial cartoon showing the 19 terrorist hijackers, to their great dismay, arriving in hell, where Satan told them, “You have reached your final destination.” It’s a reasonable assumption that the murderers of almost 3000 innocent people, by their actions, chose eternal damnation for themselves, but we can’t say for sure—and if it were revealed they had somehow made it to purgatory, they too would be entitled to our prayers—even though many of us, myself included, would find it a real challenge to pray for them.
The events of 9-11 changed our nation—and it’s our Christian duty to help ensure these changes bring us as a people closer to God. Certainly many stories of heroism, courage, and compassion emerged from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the doomed Flight 93 over Pennsylvania—and our nation as a whole, along with many foreign countries, responded in a magnificent manner. The people of Gander in Newfoundland welcomed and cared for 10,000 stranded passengers when U.S. airspace was closed. Financial contributions to the Red Cross and other charities caring for the 9-11 victims soared. Hundreds of volunteers searched through the rubble at Ground Zero, while others ministered without rest to the survivors. Enlistments in the armed forces surged; political differences were temporarily set aside. All these things speak to the greatness of our country. One point not often mentioned, but deserving of attention, is the remarkably small amount of backlash against Muslims in our country. Some instances of violence and hate speech occurred, but there were no lynch mobs, riots, round-ups, internment camps, mass deportations, or widespread efforts to blame them for what a handful of their co-religionists did. If anything, America bent over backwards to avoid such a response; our political and religious leaders urged us to remain calm and not to condemn everyone for the actions of a few. Most societies in history would not have shown such restraint. This was very much to our nation’s credit, and I believe this noble reaction pleased the Lord and may have helped protect our country from further terror attacks in the ten years since then. Certainly such an attitude ties in very well with the Gospel (Mt 18:21-35) for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. God wants us to show mercy to those who sin against us, not just for their sake, but—even more—for our own well-being. When we can pray for, and forgive, those who harm us, we truly are on the road to Heaven.
When Peter asked Jesus how often it’s necessary to forgive, Our Lord didn’t just give a numerical answer; He also told a very important parable about a man who foolishly refused to forgive a fellow servant, even though he himself had a far greater need for mercy. Freely choosing to hold onto our anger and grudges—no matter how legitimate they may be—always leads to spiritual harm. The Book of Sirach (27:30-28:7) states, “wrath and anger are hateful things,” and “if one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?” This sets the stage for the warning Jesus gives us in the Gospel: God will judge us severely for our sins, unless we forgive one another from our hearts.
One Christian outreach group, Voice of the Martyrs, has for years tried to convert terrorists and their supporters in different parts of the world by sharing the Gospel with them—and they’ve had some success; a number of people formerly committed to violence have accepted Christ. It may be necessary for our country to conduct a war on terror so as to defend our homeland, but the true war on terror Jesus wants from each of us is an honest effort to pray and sacrifice for the conversion and salvation of those who hate us. God will do the judging; He wants us to do the forgiving and the evangelizing. No matter how strong our military forces, foreign alliances, and intelligence agencies may be, they will ultimately fail unless our nation repents of its own sins and turns back to God—and a willingness to forgive our enemies is an important part of this process. We don’t have to deny the horrors of 9-11, or grow lax in our efforts to defend the innocent here and abroad, and certainly we must never forget the almost 3000 victims of that terrible day. However, the best way to honor their memory, and to win God’s blessing and protection for our country, is to choose that true peace and security which only divinely-inspired love and forgiveness can bring. Following the merciful example of Jesus by praying for our enemies is the best and wisest thing we can ever do for ourselves—and if this effort helps America once again live as one nation under God, the sacrifice of all who died on and since 9-11 will not have been in vain.