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In a Crisis We Pray

On Monday, Jan. 14, the day before the United Nations deadline for Iraq's Saddam Hussein to withdraw his occupying troops from Kuwait, I went to church to pray for peace. I had plenty of company that day—all across the archdiocese, all across the country.

Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, Americans of all faiths—and probably some of no particular faith at all—were, to use a fine old phrase, storming heaven with their prayers that day, and in the days that followed. War loomed large, its threat underscored by incessant news updates and scare headlines ("Time's Up," was the way the Post front-paged it Jan. 15). The mere thought of war sent people scurrying to do what they always do in times of crisis: pray.

We prayed at Mass at St. John the Evangelist here on First Avenue, parishioners and Catholic Center staff members alike. The faces of the people who filled the church for the noontime liturgy were solemn and worried.

I thought of a couple of things. One was something our grandson Ray said a few months ago when he was having one of his heart-to-hearts with my wife. For some reason he was on to the Berlin Wall question, and, as first-graders are likely to do, stripped the discussion to its essentials. "It's good that they tore the wall down," he said, "because the people who live there don't have to be mad at each other any more. They can be friends." He paused. "But now there's trouble with the Iraqs."

Trouble with the Iraqs, indeed. Even with all the wisdom of childhood, though, he didn't realize just how much trouble there would be.

I thought, too, of those stark and unsettling words from Pope John Paul II, the warning too somber to dismiss: war in the Persian Gulf, the pope said, would be "an adventure with no return."

Two days later, that "adventure" had begun, and our prayers moved in a different pattern. Let us hope, we said, that there will be a return—a return to peace, with justice, as swiftly as possible. But the way ahead is not clearly marked.

It is just that aspect of this conflict—the uncertainty of what will happen, of where it might lead—that has Americans so concerned. Military analysts might hold forth breezily during television interviews on the near-certitude of a "quick" victory, with minimal casualties, but if they're wrong only their egos will be wounded. And if the casualties do indeed turn out to be minimal, they are casualties nonetheless. The military analysts will not be the ones who break the news to grieving families and friends.

Only during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 can I recall anything like the shared anxiety of these winter days. If anything the mood was even darker then, for the struggle, if it came, promised to be cataclysmic. What we fear now is the unknown—and so, we pray.

In these first few days of fighting, the nation stands behind the president. Our enemy is evil, and our cause is just. But in the world of 1991, many Americans have an entirely different outlook on war itself than that of an earlier generation. Several factors are responsible: today's weapons, almost incomprehensible in their destructive power; the shrinking globe, and the more universal awareness that all who share it are brothers and sisters; a clearer understanding of the moral questions that war raises, and—perhaps most significant of all—the Vietnam experience. Do you know of anyone who has visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and has not come away moved to tears? I don't. The tears come, I think, not only because of the shock and sorrow of seeing war in a personal way, in terms of each individual life lost, but because those who see the memorial, and the endless rows of American names it contains, find themselves silently asking some of the deepest questions they've ever considered in their lives.

And now, in this crisis, we pray. We pray for peace. What we pray for, too, among other things, is that our prayers will be heard. 

—Gerald M. Costello

This column originally appeared in Catholic New York on Jan. 24, 1991.

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