On Sept. 10, I received a letter from the founder and minister-general of the religious institute of which I am a member, the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate.

The letter stated that I was to return to the United States from Italy, where I was then stationed, to serve as the father-guardian of our friary in Maine, N.Y.

I immediately set out to purchase an airline ticket.

You can imagine my shock the next day, as I was packing my bags for my new assignment, when a novice received a phone call from a benefactor in London saying that both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City had just toppled. Imagine, too, finding out that my dad had been a passenger flying over New York City around 9 a.m. (after the first plane and before the second — he later told me how he watched from his window as smoke and fire billowed from Manhattan's tallest skyscrapers).

Through the providence of God, I arrived at New York's JFK Airport on the 17th, the day I was to begin my new assignment. I must say that it was the most secure flight I had ever been on! The passengers on our flight had to go through two metal detectors and the flight was delayed because they searched the entire plane several times before leaving. As we landed in New York, a spirited choir of passengers spontaneously sang “God Bless America.” This drew tears from quite a few eyes, including my own. Yes, God, please bless our Fatherland! The chorus seemed like a heartfelt, sincere prayer.

I was met at the airport by members of my community, sent to greet me and accompany me to my new post. As we made our way, I quickly noticed that American flags were flying from what seemed like every building, house and car along the way. And then there were the signs, to the left and to the right: “God bless America.”

It was all very moving, yet, after settling in over the next few days, I began to ask the question: What do we Americans really mean when we say “God bless America?” Do we mean, “Give us the blessing of conversion and sanctification; make us a holy nation under God”? Or do we mean, “Bless us with a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage; protect our comfortable lifestyle”?

It's a question that seems even more pressing now, with Thanksgiving Day upon us.

While many have resorted to authentic prayer in these past weeks, it does not seem that our nation as a whole has been turning to God in repentance and asking the blessing of conversion of heart. If we want the blessing of God, we must ask forgiveness from him and change our hedonistic culture.

In reflecting on all that has occurred since I received that letter Sept. 10, I was haunted by the prophetic words of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. These two modern prophets warned of these kinds of events, and worse still, if our country does not convert. The bottom line is that the terrorist events of Sept. 11 are only the beginning of even more terrible times if we fail to turn to God and change our ways.

Mother Teresa said many beautiful things in her life (“The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is charity, the fruit of charity is service”). But she also said, “The fruit of abortion is nuclear war.” This short statement is particularly astonishing from the lips of the “saint of Calcutta” who manifested the mercy of God to the poorest of the poor. Yet her prophetic statement is completely logical: If human life is not safe in what should be the safest haven in the whole universe, namely its mother's womb, then it is not safe anywhere (trade centers, airplanes, the shopping mall).

Our nation has not only embraced and cultivated the “culture of death” within, but has nefariously been spreading it abroad.

The farmer reaps what he sows and, in this case, the farmer is America and the seed is death.

Tragically, most Americans simply cannot see any connection between the terrorist attacks and our culture of death. Nevertheless, if Mother Teresa is right, things could get much worse. The fact is that, with the massive slaughter of unborn babies through abortion in this country (not to mention the contraceptive mentality that sustains it), no human life is sacred or safe anywhere or at any time. Biological and nuclear warfare seems but a logical consequence.

So either we convert (starting with myself) or we pay the price. It's that simple. God's mercy has been and continues to await our response.

In 1993, His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, spoke to hundreds of thousands of American youth gathered for the World Youth Day in Denver, Colo. I was blessed to make the pilgrimage to Denver with a caravan of buses filled with young people. It was a marvelous moment of grace for our nation. But I never forgot what the Holy Father said at the climax of the event. Speaking at the Solemn Mass of Our Lady's Assumption on August 15, he said: “Woe to you …”

It goes without saying that this is not common language for papal addresses — especially when the audience is an enormous gathering of highly energized youth. In that address, the Pope used biblical, prophetic language to exhort the young people of America to take an active role in changing their world.

Even eight years later, his prophetic statement echoes unforgettably in the depths of my very being. “Woe to you, young people,” he said, “if you do not succeed in proclaiming the Gospel of Life!”

It was a conditional prophecy: If the Gospel of Life were to be proclaimed successfully, God would bless America as never before; if not, “woe to you.”

For those of us who desire to respond to God's call to conversion and holiness, and who desire to lead others to God's choicest blessings, the means have not changed: prayer and penance. This is the Gospel. This was Our Lady's plea at Fatima.

Prayer — especially the holy Mass, holy rosary and eucharistic adoration. Penance — self-denial, mortification and, especially, the sacrament of Penance. By these means, and no other, we can and must obtain the blessing of almighty God for our country and our world. This is not an option. It is an imperative. “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph,” said our Blessed Mother.

By means of prayer and penance, even our country can partake of this triumph of love, can build this culture of life.

It depends on us. Let us do our part, and pray that God in his infinite mercy may truly bless America — not only this Thanksgiving Day, but in all the days to follow.

Franciscan Father Maximilian Mary De Cruce writes from Maine, New York (http://www.marymediatrix.com).