"Where were you when ..."

Monday, November 05, 2018 - Updated: 10:49 am

There are those singular moments in our lives when we can remember where we were when some extraordinary event happened either in our lives or in the life of the world.

Tenderly, husbands and wives remember where they were when the engagement question was posed and answered. Grandparents remember what they were doing when they got the news of their first grandchild’s birth. We priests remember what were our thoughts when we received our first assignment. Most Catholics recall what we were thinking when we heard the news of the election of Pope Francis on March 13, 2013

On the tragic side, many people remember where we were on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated; or what we were doing when we learned of the attacks on our country on 9/11.

Add to this list Saturday, October 27, 2018. “Where were you when …” you first heard the horrific news of the assault on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill?

I had just finished giving Holy Communion to hundreds of women gathered together for the Catholic Women’s Conference. About 1,000 women set aside their routine schedules to spend a day of prayer with Jesus through Mary. Following my last communicant, our executive director for communications, Father Nick Vaskov, whispered the news in my ear. Immediately, I shared it with all the retreatants. We spent ten minutes in silence before concluding the celebration of the Mass. The silence was intermittently broken by soft sobs and the use of tissues wiping away the tears.

One of those women was especially concerned. Her husband, a very faithful Jew, was at that synagogue that day as he was on most Saturdays. He would be reported later that day as one of the 11 massacred.

Richard Gottfried and his wife, Peg, accompanied me and my good friend, Rabbi Aaron Bisno, on a “Pursuers of Peace” interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Peg is an active Catholic, and they renewed their wedding vows at Cana in Galilee. Rich was not only supportive of Peg’s Catholic faith, but served the Church as well as any baptized Catholic. He and Peg taught marriage preparation at St. Athanasius Parish. Both are dentists, and Rich volunteered for the Catholic Charities Free Health Center dental clinic.

Rich embodied the phrase “Pursuer of Peace,” words drawn from Psalm 34, which offers us divine guidance:

“Keep your tongue from evil,

your lips from speaking lies.

Turn from evil and do good;

… seek peace and pursue it.

The Lord is close to the

brokenhearted, saves those

whose spirits are crushed.”

— Psalm 34:14-15, 19

Cecil and David Rosenthal are the sons of my good friends Eliezer and Joy Rosenthal, whose love and support for their children with intellectual disabilities has shown me the meaning and blessings of devotion.

Many of us are nearly mute from grief at the slaughter of 11 of our Jewish sisters and brothers — our friends, family, neighbors and coworkers-in the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday.

This massacre is both deeply personal for us and a dire warning for all of us to end the toxic madness that is engulfing our society.

We are all tempted to evil with our tongues, whether through lies, gossip or malice. These murders show what lies, gossip and malice can lead to. Apparently, the perpetrator believed that immigrants threaten this country and blamed a certain Jewish organization for helping undocumented immigrants. From that, he concluded that “all Jews must die.” The Jewish aid organization in question does work similar to that of Catholic Charities.

We know that God calls us to love our neighbor. Jesus defined “neighbor” as someone so different from us that society might tell us that he or she was “the enemy.” No one can be excluded from our love because no one is excluded from God’s love.

So, when you or I read or hear something that tempts us to anger against a person or group, we know that Jesus calls us to love them instead. The story of the Good Samaritan shows that by “love,” He means doing something to help them.

What does that look like? It can mean speaking up gently when someone else talks in a demeaning way of others. It may mean disengaging from some social media groups or politely presenting the facts when you read lies in your news feed. Never answer anger with anger.

Consider inviting someone you fervently disagree with to share a meal, or at least a cup of coffee. Instead of talking about what divides you, just get to know each other. Where did you each grow up? What are your hobbies or interests? Perhaps you could discuss what shaped your values. You might even discover a community service project to work on together.

When we recognize the inherent human dignity of a person with whom we disagree, then we “pursue peace.” That phrase from the psalm is closely associated with Rodef Shalom Congregation, where Rabbi Bisno has become one of my closest friends.

He has offered a listening ear and has been a source of support when I am troubled. I hope that I do the same for him. Our friendship not only makes the two of us stronger. It makes our community stronger.

Another good friend is Rabbi Alvin Berkun, the longtime senior rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation, now retired. Rabbi Berkun has been a leader in Catholic-Jewish relations at the highest level, meeting with popes to discuss matters of interfaith concern. When Pope Francis was elected, Rabbi Berkun knew him better than most American bishops did, because he had participated in a Catholic-Jewish dialogue that the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had hosted in Buenos Aires.

Because of Rabbi Berkun’s commitment to interfaith relationships, Tree of Life hosted many interfaith events. One of the most prominent was in 2000, when 400 people of all faiths called for gun control measures, including more rigorous background checks and better training for gun owners.

Rabbi Berkun was instrumental in launching a project in which rabbis teach about Judaism in Catholic high schools and Catholic clergy teach Jewish students about Catholicism. For many years, Rabbi Berkun taught a monthly religion class at Central Catholic High School in Oakland, building bonds with a generation of young Catholics. And he worked with then-Bishop Donald Wuerl to establish Holocaust memorials at our own St. Paul Seminary and at the Vatican.

The murders at the synagogue must be considered in the context of the Holocaust. While any act of contempt or violence against a person because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation or cultural identity is a grievous sin, anti-Jewish bigotry is set apart. The murder of 6 million Jews in Europe during World War II manifests the worst depth to which human depravity can sink.

The people who reached those depths were, for the most part, “civilized” people who had been raised as Christians. Some had renounced their faith, but many twisted it to the point that they could ignore Jesus’ command to love their neighbor. They chose propaganda over the Word of God. Their twisted beliefs made them callous as millions of Jews were persecuted, rounded up and deported — most going to their deaths — before their very eyes.

That is why any response to such violence must begin by searching our own hearts. Against whom do we harbor anger, resentment or contempt? Even when our anger seems justified, God calls us to repent of it and love the person in question. Catholics can go to Confession and seek God’s grace to help us.

When we turn to God and ask for His grace to answer hatred with love, our faith grows. It is natural to ask where God is in times such as these. But God did not cause this massacre; a man did. This was the act of someone who had hardened his heart to God’s Word and to the image of God in each and every human being.

The psalm tells us that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, saves those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:19).

Those who lost family, friends and neighbors feel a crushing weight of anguish. It is very difficult to sense God’s presence through the veil of grief. You and I can make God’s love tangible when we sit with them, pray for them, send them cards or engage in service projects in the name of someone who died.

The traditional Jewish prayer for those who have died, the Kaddish, is an offering of praise to the Lord, a reminder of His presence in even the hardest of times.

A mourner who prays Kaddish must do so in a gathering of at least ten people. This practice of our Jewish sisters and brothers should remind us how important it is to have the support of a community of faith when we grieve — and to offer support to others through our community of faith. As we remember all those who died at Tree of Life — those who mourn them and those who are struggling to recover from their wounds — may we come together in love, in prayer and in a solemn resolution to be “pursuers of peace.”

Sometime in the future, when the tragedy of the Tree of Life massacre isn’t as fresh as it is now, and someone raises the question: “Where were you when …?” may the conversation be a strong nudge to remember what it means to be a “pursuer of peace.”

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