Frontline transcript of an interview with Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete:
Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete is a professor of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, and formerly served as associate professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family. Here, he discusses the “two faces of God” — the compassionate and the destructive — and his ongoing quest to reconcile the two. He candidly acknowledges that he recognized the ruinous forces of religion in those first moments after the attacks on Sept. 11. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.
What was Sept. 11 like for you?
I saw death. I saw death. I am a priest; I’ve seen many kinds of deaths, many deaths — death of young people, death of old people. Peaceful deaths — people just fly off. Tragic deaths as a result of accidents, of violence even. I’ve seen death resisted ’til the last minute. Agonizing death. But this was different. This was death. Death. In each death, I have to be personally engaged, because as you know — I don’t want it to sound selfish, but you experience, you anticipate. I anticipate my own possibility of ceasing to exist. I hate it; I’m against it. Every fiber mentally, physically fights against it. Each death is a horror, but finally it’s over. There is some kind of closure, some kind of sign that says, well, move on. This was absent on Sept. 11.
… Just to see the inevitable scene again and again of that plane. And was it because they showed it again and again? No, no, because I felt it the first time. Namely, there is no closure. This doesn’t say to me, move on. It says, stay. Stay and look. Stare into this black hole. Don’t go away because this is going to change you. And I knew it from the very first moment; this was not the same. This was death in all its nakedness. Death.
The first thing I saw was horror. The horror in the faces of the people outside the building, looking. I didn’t see the buildings the first time, when I turned on the television set; it was the faces. I saw their faces disfigured by horror, by terror. And then I saw what was happening. I saw the explosion, the fire, the smoke. The people jumping, jumping from windows … unbelievable. … And how many times have I been up there? The mere idea, jumping, and hanging from the window. How is it possible to fear what lies inside more than the horror outside? This is incomprehensible. … What could be going through their mind? Jumping. … And then that second plane, the inevitability of what was going to happen to those inside the plane, to those outside. … People running away. I saw the buildings crash, the weight, the sheer weight of them. Death, death everywhere. …
I don’t feel it’s over even now. You see, there was no closure, as they say. In other deaths, I felt it was time to now affirm life and continue life. But here it is as if it all froze at the moment of death. It is a moment of death that remains. It remains to this day. I knew I had to stand before it as long as it takes to see where this was taking me, because it has changed me, and I know it will continue to change me.
As a priest, were you comforted by your faith?
As I looked at that scene of horror, the people jumping, the people running away, the building falling, the flames, the explosions, was I consoled in some way by my faith that I was here seeing the passage to another kind of life? No, no, a thousand times, no. I didn’t even think of it. I had to see it. I was dominated, seized by the event, that’s all. No interpretation. No consolation. Just the reality. Later, later, the question emerges and faith comes in. But not at that moment, no.
The image of the man and woman who held hands as they jumped from the window. … Do you think about where they might be?
I think they are in the hands of the love that is the ultimate reality about human life, the love of which those two hands held together as they jumped from the window. The love of which those two hands are a revelation, a sign, a brief insight. … I think they are there. It doesn’t matter how one imagines it. Imagine it the way you want. That’s the great thing about it, the way you want, but they’re holding hands…
To me, that image is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It’s a choice. It’s the choice of Sept. 11. …
What did you learn about evil?
As a priest, I deal with good and evil all the time. Well, first of all, as a human being, I live good and evil all the time, within me. As a priest, it’s my business. I hear confessions, I give spiritual advice. I deal with moral issues all the time. So each time I recognize myself in all sides of the problems that come to me … in human situations. And as an intellectual, as a theologian, I study it. I have read the history of the great debates about what is good and what is evil, how are these related throughout the history of thought. Great issues, great problems, all that.
But 9/11 was different. There was a reality present, something about it that was different. And I thought, what can it be? Is it the magnitude of this? Or the number of people? The explosion, the drama of it? Was it the incessant looking at it on television? No, no, I tried all these things, but there was more. There was more I had to pay attention to. I thought, take the Holocaust for example, from the point of view of magnitude and of horror. In that sense, it’s unimaginable. And yet, Hitler at least hated a concrete people. He hated the Jews. He wanted to destroy all Jews. In fact, in order to somehow make it possible, he had to deny their humanity so he could wipe them out.
But here there were Jews present, there were Christians, there were Buddhists, there were atheists, there were Muslims. There were rich, there were poor. There were CEOs, there were waiters. There were newlyweds, there were widowers. It was humanity. The twin towers, the whole region is an affirmation of human dreams, of human ambition, of human desire, of the hope of human progress, of human struggle for survival.
It’s humanity, and that had to be destroyed because this was hatred for humanity that inspired this deed. I don’t know the people who did this, how they rationalized it or explain it away. It’s beside the point. I was watching hatred for humanity. … I am human too. I was in those buildings. We were all in those buildings being human beings. And this was the depth of it.
And I knew that there was one human way to respond: It was to stare at it, to face it, not to go away, above all, not to look for explanations. Certainly, no philosophical, theological, or religious explanations; even less, political, economic, foreign policy, the Palestinian problem, American foreign policy, conspiracies. Immediately the whole “Yes, but” brigade came out to explain it all away. And I knew that would be a betrayal of reality. … The cause here is a passionate hatred of humanity….
It was not Jews, it was not Christians, it was not Westerners, it was not Easterners. There were all of these people at the World Trade Center. … What did they have in common? Their humanity. That was their offense. That was the object of their hatred. This was hatred of the human.
What does that mean? It means a boundary has been broken that opens up the floodgates to unstoppable horror, because human is all we are, all we can be, all we can appeal to. It’s our safety net. … But here, the more you show your humanity, the more you’re hated. I’ve never seen anything like this. And I saw it.
To me, to distract one from this, to look for explanations, is obscene. It’s an offense against the reality of what happened — an offense against our humanity — to look for political explanations, economic explanations, diplomatic explanations. “Oh, it’s American foreign policy. It is the arrival into our shores of the Palestinian-Israeli fight. It is globalization. It is the cultural wars. It is American imperialism.” All of that is proposed by the “Yes, but” brigade who got to work immediately after the explosion. It is obscene and irresponsible, because we were facing an attack, a hatred of humanity which is what we all have in common. It’s our line of defense, our only one. And now that was gone. …
The people who did this, who planned it, who brought it about, I don’t know what their theology or their ideology is. I take them at their word; they died with the name of God on their lips. People say they were sincere; well, yes, they were. They believed. This is an act for them that was a sincere act, the worship of their God. I take them at their word. Does that make them any less evil? Oh, but no, that precisely is the monstrosity. If they were not sincere, it would be a terrible thing, but … it is the sincerity, it is the free will. I mean, they willed this to happen. They willed the destruction of humanity, of humanness, of everybody in that place on that day at the World Trade Center. This was a freely willed act, very sincere. And this sincerity is one of the horrible characteristics of the face of evil I saw that day. …
Do you believe that evil is inside or outside us?
Well, for me, evil is certainly the worst we are capable of, but it is more. The deepest experience of it, and even in me, where else can I examine it but in the terrible, frightening possibilities I see within myself? There is a dimension at that depth of the worst that we can do, a dimension of being part of a larger reality, of being part of a rebellion that didn’t start with you, or coincides with you, but that is more. It extends beyond your possibilities or even your existence. You can give it names, you can draw little horns on it; these are human attempts. The experience behind it is the experience of a kind of anti-solidarity, a force of nothingness. And it can only be expressed in that kind of language. Not in philosophical language, but in an experiential language, in stories, in poems. It’s inside. …
That is why in this case, for all the horror, for all the fear, you know what’s the worst part? I can’t separate myself totally from the people who did this. … When I think or talk about evil, I of course refer to the worst that I could possibly imagine someone doing to me, or me doing to someone. The worst things that human beings can do, and I as a human being have that capacity. The worst things we could do, not only individually, but collectively as human beings. But I think there is more. … I experience more.
I experience, beyond that, that there is a dimension of participating in a force, in a rebellion, in a hatred that goes beyond you and me as individuals and even beyond us collectively. That it is a rebellion against existence itself, not just humanity now, but existence that has preceded us. A force. Does it have a personality to it? Is it a personal force? … Is it someone? I would rather save the word “person” for human beings. I don’t want to use words beyond the necessary “force” to indicate “beyond us,” because words belong to what exist. Words are supposed to carry existence, to carry something, to indicate something, to be a form of communication, of relationship. This force is the very heart of anti-relationship. Oh, yes, that too was the face of that day, that horrible day.
What have been the challenges to you as a priest?
From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion. Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life, it’s my vocation, it’s my existence. I’d give my life for it; I hope to have the courage. Therefore, I know it.
And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion — because religion can be a passion — the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognized it.
I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don’t hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different — these are characteristics of religion. And I knew that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.
My friends in the business, religious leaders, we all took to the streets to try to salvage something of it. Funny, suddenly every government official became a religious leader, reassuring us that all religions are for peace. I understand. It was embarrassing. And now I think we have a religious duty to face this ambivalence about religion, and to do something about it. To promote that which makes it a constructive force and to protect us from that which makes it a destructive force…
If I thought what we saw on Sept. 11, the dreadful and horrible possibilities of religion, were the only face of religion, I assure you I’d take off this collar. There is another face — maybe harder to see after Sept. 11 and what has followed it — but it’s there. I see it every Sunday. The parish where I work is not far from the World Trade Center. The Lower East Side, 90 percent Hispanic. Poor people, many affected by death in the World Trade Center. And yet they weren’t asking the great difficult questions about why, or the nature of evil.
They don’t have time for that. They have to struggle to live every day. And in that struggle, which somehow embraced even that terrible day, their religion, their church, their parish stands for life, stands for hope, stands for home. It’s sustains them. It helps them. It’s not their opium, as Marx would say. On the contrary, it encourages them to struggle, not to give up, not to surrender. They are poor, but they know, they experience, they feel that each one of them has a link with an infinite mystery. No need to worship any other source of power, economic power, political power — that they have a dignity that cannot be taken away from them. …
I mean, in Latin America, which is my ethnic background, the religion has been the force that has sustained the drive for justice and liberty of millions. I mean, their statues, Our Lady and so forth, it’s because no matter how poor, no matter how weak, they have come to believe and experience it. Each one of them has a link with the infinite, with that very same mystery in the name of which people kill and hate. They experience that link, that mystery, as the source of their dignity and of the dignity of others. … And when people disappear, their loved ones, when death occurs, they imagine them resting in the arms of that mystery of absolute love. That’s my daily fare. I see that every day. I saw it within hours of the World Trade Center. Everybody saw something of it on TV…
This is the other face of religion. It’s the same religious passion. The same desire for infinity. How can this be? How can it be these two opposed things? I don’t know, but then maybe human passion I guess is like that. But this one, this is the most powerful one. And so after Sept. 11, and much of what followed, it is very difficult to see this, the face of love in the face of religion. We cannot forget it. It alone, I believe, has the strength to face the other face of religion. …
When I saw this other face of religion in my parishioners as a reality, with concrete names, I knew I had to hang onto it. I had to be with them. I needed my parishioners, because the other was so destructive that I felt it threatened my own life, the sincerity of everything I had said, or preached, or done. And then they were there, and telling me, … because I would ask them difficult questions, and they would look at me and it was so beautiful. They were suddenly ministering to me. And it’s an amazing thing and a beautiful thing and I knew that it was as much that reality to which I had devoted my life as that other horror.
And so I don’t understand, but I know this, it is this power to sustain the poor that I want my religion to be. …
Time has passed since Sept. 11, 2001, and life has returned to normal, only that the normal now contains, still as an open wound, an open window into mystery. What happened that day — those bodies, fire, the airplanes crashing, relentlessly again and again. The people running away, the horror in the faces of those who were seeing this. All of that in the name of God, the very same God which, but a few blocks away, was sustaining the hope and the courage of my parishioners, the poor Hispanics of the Lower East Side. They too were appealing to God, appealing to God to console me. They were ministering to me. And since then until now, forever I’ll be faced with those two faces of God. Two faces of the mystery. Two faces of religion. And I know, of course, what I have to choose. I hope I have the friends and support of people who would stop me if they see me ever moving into the direction that may open the slightest bit of the door to the God of destruction and hatred.
Which is the true face of religion? I keep asking myself. Which is the true face of God? I don’t think there are two Gods, I think there is only one God. Which is the true face of God? Well, I don’t know, I only know this: I will never worship a God that doesn’t reveal itself as humility, as poor. That’s how I have changed, and I hope I will be faithful to it until it’s my turn to disappear into the mystery.