Journey to Liberty and Forgiveness

Life's coincidences are amazing and sometimes eerie.

On 9/11/01, I ended up stranded in New York. It was one of my rare visits.

I traveled to the city late on Sept. 10, staying until Sept. 14. I will never forget those days — e.g., late the next day, when the wind shifted, suddenly the putrid smell wafting up from Ground Zero enveloped the Midtown Manhattan condo where I was staying.

Two months later, when I quickly organized a return visit, the only available hotel was near the intersection of the symbolically powerful Liberty and Broadway, at Ground Zero, the air still thick with sickening chemicals, as workers with masks continued the clean-up.

During my November visit, that video of Osama bin Laden mimicking the planes crashing into the Twin Towers was released and aired incessantly.

Nearly 10 years later, while visiting the city again — a frequently canceled trip, months in planning — I awoke to news of bin Laden's demise.

During that stay, Pope John Paul II was beatified on May 1 in St. Peter's Square as Navy Seals were making final preparations to helicopter into Abbottabad, Pakistan, 65 miles outside of Islamabad, to take out the terrorist mastermind. It was a grotesque, bloody scene we can only imagine. He had taken out the Twin Towers and with them more than 2,500 souls — a total of 2,998 on 9/11. Now he got his eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth just deserts.

At 10:30pm, when the Seals took off, it was 8pm in Rome, where faithful were praying before John Paul II's exhumed casket; in Washington, it was 2pm. White House officials huddled in "The War Room," whose 50th anniversary was May 13.

At the beatification ceremony for John Paul II, the French nun whose Parkinson's was cured through John Paul's intercession carried a silver reliquary holding a vial of the Pope's blood to the altar — the blood that flowed from John Paul II in that very square, nearly 30 years earlier, when Turkish hitman Mehmet Ali Agca gunned him down on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

It was only because the Pope had leaned over to bless a little girl's Our Lady of Fatima medal just as the would-be assassin pulled the trigger that the bullet narrowly missed his heart.

Exactly a year later, the Pope made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to thank her for saving his life, bringing her a crown encased with jewels and his attacker's bullet. (Our Lady of Fatima is said to have told the three shepherd children she appeared to in Fatima in 1917, "There are no coincidences.")

Following the shooting, Pope John Paul II asked people "to pray for my brother [Agca] ... whom I have sincerely forgiven." In December 1983, he visited Agca in prison, meeting and speaking with him privately. The Pope also developed a rapport with Agca's family, meeting his mother in 1987 and his brother a decade later.

Although Agca had expressed disdain for John Paul II, mistakenly considering him "the incarnation of all that is capitalism," he too developed a warm friendship with the Pope and, in early February 2005, as the John Paul was dying, wrote to wish him well.

Two years later, Agca wrote a letter saying he had renounced his Muslim faith and converted to Catholicism on May 13, 2007. "I would wish to return to Rome," he wrote, "to pray at the tomb of John Paul II to express my filial appreciation for his forgiveness."

At St. Patrick's Cathedral on May 1, 2011, Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop emeritus of New York, emphasized the Pope's powerful example of forgiveness as the only path to peace.

It's hard to think about forgiveness 10 years after 9/11. The events of that day are just too horrific.

Yet out of that tragedy and brutal loss of life came a flowering of spirituality — of which forgiveness is the foundation.

When I spoke with Father Peter Gnanashekar of Our Lady of Victory Church, which is close to Ground Zero, on Nov. 9, 2001, he reflected on this spiritual renewal, while recounting the events surrounding the terrorist attack.

On the morning of Sept. 11, at 8:47am, he said, "Time seemed to stand still."

While assisting at Mass, he heard a "big sound." Soon a man, covered in debris, rushed in to report the horrific news, followed by someone reporting a man covered in blood had dragged himself to the church seeking last rites. Father Andrew Cieszkowksi immediately administered the sacrament to this man, who had been struck by flying debris. He was Ground Zero's first visible victim.

Others, going out to see the scene with their own eyes, came back in utter disbelief.

Spurred on by the mayhem, Father Peter recalled how everyone began to pray fervently "in front of the tabernacle and Blessed Mother's statue," and then, "spontaneously, to pray aloud."

As the dust came pouring in, people started taking altar cloths to cover themselves, holding tight through the final 10:30am tower collapse.

Then, as the debris in the church cleared, everyone — in a state of shock — began going to confession. Believing their demise was imminent, they asked Father Peter to hurry with the absolution.

Every Wednesday since Sept. 11, Our Lady of Victory held an hour of prayer to help people cope with the grief and to provide mental and spiritual solace. The purpose, Father Peter said, was "to share, to heal, (and) to grow as we try to face this one with faith."

This Sept. 11, let's continue "to face this one with faith." That such great suffering can bring that silver lining — enabling us to discern and embrace the wisdom of Pope John Paul II's central message of forgiveness — is a great consolation.

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter.