Jim Nicholson, then the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, reflects on his experience of the September 11 attacks and the response of John Paul II.
Twenty years ago, on September 11, Ambassador Jim Nicholson had just arrived in Rome. Nicholson had been named by the Bush administration to serve as Ambassador of the United States to the Vatican, the Holy See.
“9/11 was a shocking event,” Ambassador Nicholson told Aleteia in a recent interview. “I had just arrived in Rome and I was preparing to present my credentials to the Holy Father, John Paul II, the head of the sovereign state of the Holy See. It was shocking.”
An American diplomat, Nicholson recalls the immediate solidarity expressed abroad. “The sense of everyone in Rome, the whole international community was that they too had been attacked,” says Nicholson. He pauses, then soberly says, “It was a sad day.”
News of the attack
When the ambassador first heard the news of an incident in New York, he was calling on the French ambassador to the Vatican. Nicholson recalls that a member of his security detail approached him as they arrived at the French ambassador’s residence.
The wife of the French ambassador gently assured him, saying hopefully, “I’m sure it was an accident.” However, as Nicholson departed the visit he received news of the second plane striking the World Trade Center. At that point it was clear that we had been attacked.
“Turnout was overwhelming among diplomats expressing their condolences, their sympathy, their support,” says Nicholson. The Italian Prime Minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi, arranged a rally in Rome. “Over a million people turned out to show their support for the United States,” said Nicholson. “I joined other diplomats and the Prime Minister to speak at the event, which was an overwhelming expression of alignment with the U.S.”
Received by John Paul II
John Paul II spoke about the events in a moving address during his general audience the next day, September 12. The following day, the pope received Ambassador Nicholson at Castel Gandolfo. Seeing Nicholson at the doorway of his office, the pope rose to welcome him into the room. John Paul II received Nicholson’s credentials, and by-passing formal protocols, simply put them on his desk.
“He immediately expressed his grief and sorrow for what had happened to America and to all mankind,” Nicholson recalled. The pontiff and ambassador then paused to pray a Hail Mary together for the victims.
By that time the intelligence community and the State Department had prepared a briefing that Ambassador Nicholson was able to present to the Holy Father. “He was grieving as much as I was,” Nicholson recalled. The Holy Father, himself a survivor of the Nazi occupation and the reign of the communist party in Poland, firmly said, “We have to stop these people who kill in the name of God.”
That message of John Paul II was not a privileged communication. Ambassador Nicholson was able to report those strong words of John Paul II. They marshaled the support of the international community for America’s response to the terrorist attacks.
A day of remembrance
“I think it’s very important to observe this day, and very important to remember it,” says Nicholson. “It reminds us, as a people, how vulnerable we are to the attacks of fanatical religious terrorists.”
“A very concrete manifestation of that vulnerability happened 20 years ago today,” said Nicholson. “We should cherish our freedom and our way of life. There are really serious people out there who want to disrupt it, who want to impose other values which are not ours.”
Nicholson noted that the relationship between the U.S. and the Holy See—which was already healthy—was strengthened by the solidarity that developed among nations who care for the freedom and welfare of humanity. Nicholson observed that following the terrorist attacks, there was a great coming together of mutual interests, goals, and support to do something about it.
A call to vigilance
Turning his thoughts to young people, Ambassador Nicholson said, imploringly, “We cannot become complacent. We have to commit ourselves as a country—diplomatically, militarily, morally—to be in opposition to cultures that think that they have a mandate to oppress and destroy our culture.”
“Our faith is constantly being challenged and attacked,” Nicholson concluded. “We need to recognize that the devil is real, active and strong in a spiritual and temporal way.” Delineating lines of action, the Ambassador said, “Spiritually we need to pray to St. Michael and temporally we need to take the steps to protect ourselves and our way of life.”