Oct 15, 2001

Pope John Paul II

Online Edition

– Vol. VII, No. 7: October 2001

Pope John Paul II

At his Wednesday Audience on September 12, Pope John Paul II, departing from his continuing exegesis on the Psalms, reflected on the September 11 events in America.

I cannot begin this audience without expressing my profound sorrow at the terrorist attacks which yesterday brought death and destruction to America, causing thousands of victims and injuring countless people. To the President of the United States and to all American citizens I express my heartfelt sorrow. In the face of such unspeakable horror we cannot but be deeply disturbed. I add my voice to all the voices raised in these hours to express indignant condemnation, and I strongly reiterate that the ways of violence will never lead to genuine solutions to humanity’s problems.

Yesterday was a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity. After receiving the news, I followed with intense concern the developing situation, with heartfelt prayers to the Lord. How is it possible to commit acts of such savage cruelty? The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it.

With deeply felt sympathy I address myself to the beloved people of the United States in this moment of distress and consternation, when the courage of so many men and women of good will is being sorely tested. In a special way I reach out to the families of the dead and the injured, and assure them of my spiritual closeness. I entrust to the mercy of the Most High the helpless victims of this tragedy, for whom I offered Mass this morning, invoking upon them eternal rest. May God give courage to the survivors; may He sustain the rescue-workers and the many volunteers who are presently making an enormous effort to cope with such an immense emergency. I ask you, dear brothers and sisters, to join me in prayer for them. Let us beg the Lord that the spiral of hatred and violence will not prevail. May the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Mercy, fill the hearts of all with wise thoughts and peaceful intentions.

Today, my heartfelt sympathy is with the American people, subjected yesterday to inhuman terrorist attacks which have taken the lives of thousands of innocent human beings and caused unspeakable sorrow in the hearts of all men and women of good will. Yesterday was indeed a dark day in our history, an appalling offense against peace, a terrible assault against human dignity.

I invite you all to join me in commending the victims of this shocking tragedy to Almighty God’s eternal love. Let us implore his comfort upon the injured, the families involved, all who are doing their utmost to rescue survivors and help those affected. I ask God to grant the American people the strength and courage they need at this time of sorrow and trial.

During his pastoral visit on September 16 to the diocese of Frosinone, Italy, the Holy Father enjoined prayer:

May the Blessed Virgin bring comfort and hope to those who suffer on account of the tragic attack of the terrorists, that last week seriously harmed the beloved American people. To all the children of this great Nation I direct my heartbroken and heartfelt consideration. May Mary welcome the dead, console the survivors, support those families who are particularly tried, help all to resist the temptation to hatred and violence, and to dedicate themselves to the service of justice and peace.

May the Virgin Mary nourish in the hearts of all young persons, above all, high human and spiritual ideals and the necessary perseverance to achieve them. May she remind them of the primacy of eternal values, especially in these difficult moments, so that in their daily engagements and activities they may ever continue to be turned toward God and to his kingdom of solidarity and peace.

At the general audience on September 19, the Holy Father returned to the Book of Psalms with a sermon on Psalm 56.

It is a dark night; devouring wild beasts are perceived in the surroundings. The one who prays is waiting for the coming of dawn so that the light will dispel the darkness and fear. This is the background of Psalm 56 (57) on which we reflect today. It is a night prayer made by the one who prays at the break of day, anxiously awaited, in order to be able to praise the Lord with joy (cf. vv. 9-12). In fact, the psalm passes from dramatic lament addressed to God to serene hope and joyful thanksgiving, the latter using words that resound again in another psalm (cf. Ps 107 [108]:2-6).

In reality, one assists at the passage from fear to joy, from night to day, from nightmare to serenity, from supplication to praise. It is an experience that is often described in the Psalter: "You changed my mourning into dancing, you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. With my whole being I sing endless praise to you. Lord, my God, forever will I will give you thanks" (Ps 29:12-13).


2. Psalm 56 (57) that we are meditating on has two parts. The first part is the experience of fear before the assault of the evil which tries to strike the just one (cf. vv. 2-7). At the center of the scene there are lions poised to attack. In no time this image is transformed into a picture of war, complete with spears, arrows, and swords. The one who prays feels assailed by a kind of death squadron. Around him there is a band of hunters, setting traps and digging pits to capture their prey. But this tense atmosphere is suddenly dissolved. In fact, already at the beginning (cf. v. 2), the protective symbol of the divine wings appears which refers, specifically, to the Ark of the Covenant with the winged cherubim, sign of the presence of God among the faithful in the holy temple on Mt. Zion.

3. The one who prays asks God insistently to send from heaven His messengers to whom He assigns the symbolic names of "Faithfulness" and "Grace" (v. 4), the qualities proper to the saving love of God. For that reason, even if he shudders at the terrible roaring of the wild beasts and the perfidy of his persecutors, the faithful one remains serene and confident within, like Daniel in the lions’ den (cf. Dn. 6,17-25).


The presence of the Lord does not delay in showing its efficacy by means of the self inflicted punishment of his adversaries: they tumble into the pit which they had dug for the just one (cf. v. 7). Such confidence in divine justice, which is always expressed in the Psalter, wards off discouragement and surrender to the power of evil. Sooner or later, God sides with the faithful one upsetting the maneuvers of the wicked, tripping them up in their own evil plots.

4. Now we reach the second part of the Psalm, that of thanksgiving (cf. vv. 8-12). There is a passage which shines because of its intensity and beauty: "My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody. Awake my soul. Awake O harp and lyre. I will awake the dawn" (vv. 8-9). Now the darkness has been dispelled: the dawn of salvation has colored the song of the one who prays.

Applying this image to himself, the Psalmist seems to translate into terms that belong to the religious imagery of the Bible, which is rigorously monotheistic, the custom of the Egyptian or Phoenician priests who were in charge of "awakening the dawn", of making the sun reappear, since it was considered a beneficent god. He also alludes to the use of hanging up musical instruments and covering them in a time of mourning and trial (cf. Ps 136 [137],2), and of "reawakening" them to a festive sound in times of liberation and joy. Hope blossoms from the liturgy: one turns to God asking Him to draw near to His people again and to hear their prayer. In the Psalter, dawn is often the moment when God grants a favor after a night of prayer.

Divine Intervention

5. The Psalm closes with a hymn of praise to the Lord, who works with His two great saving qualities, that already appear with different names in the first part of the supplication (cf. v. 4). Now virtually personified, divine Goodness and Faithfulness enter the scene. They flood the heavens with their presence and are like light that shines in the darkness of trials and persecutions (cf. v. 11). For this reason the Christian tradition has used Psalm 56 (57) as a canticle of awakening to Easter light and joy, which shines out to the faithful removing the fear of death and opening the horizon of heavenly glory.

6. Gregory of Nyssa discovers in the words of the Psalm a kind of typical description of what happens in every human experience open to the recognition of the wisdom of God. "Indeed, He saved me he exclaims by shading me with the cloud of the Spirit, and those who trampled me underfoot were humiliated" (From the Italian translation of On the Titles of the Psalms, Rome, 1994, p. 183).

Later, quoting the expressions at the end of the Psalm, where it says, "Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be above the earth", he concludes, "To the degree that the glory of God is extended on earth, increased by the faith of those who are saved, the heavenly powers extol God, exulting for our salvation" (Ibid. p. 184).

I extend warm greetings to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Canada, Malta, Japan, Indonesia and the United States of America.

I invite you to pray in these days that Almighty God will guide the minds and hearts of world leaders so that the ways of justice and peace may prevail. Upon you and your families I invoke abundant divine blessings.

(Texts: Vatican Information Service)



The Editors