Often when we remember a loved one who has gone home to God, there is the strange experience of tears streaming down our cheeks because of the pain of loss, and a wide smile on the face because of a wonderful memory. This describes the experience of the annual memorial gatherings on 11th September each year. While the years do not erase the pain of loss, the passing of time makes the good memories all the more cherished. This twenty-first anniversary of that day challenges us to remember in the true biblical sense of memory. As Rabbi Jonathan Pearl, who has become a good friend through our sharing in the Port Authority Police Memorial Service each year, said earlier today, we remember today with biblical memory — the memory commanded in the Torah, which challenges us to remember what happened, recognize it for the truth of its reality, and let it become a reason to hope for the future.
Those of us who are native New Yorkers are seen as brash and undaunted. On that clear blue-skied day in 2001, we began a usual Tuesday of the business of being New Yorkers at the breakneck speed with which we talk, react, and do everything that we do. And then it stopped. For us, that biblical challenge became real, as we recognized the senseless violence as the evil that it was, and immediately responded with the hope that brings light to the darkness.
All of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing as we heard the news. At the time, I was pastor of St. Benedict’s Parish in The Bronx, a very large and busy working-class Italian, Irish, and Latino parish in a part of The Bronx that juts out into Long Island Sound, and so has a striking view of the skyline of Manhattan. The students in the classrooms on the top floor of the parish school often found the view more interesting than their lessons. As they looked out and saw the towers burning, it was with terror, for many of their parents worked in those buildings as office staff, waiters and cooks in the restaurants, and maintenance personnel to operate the building. Others knew that their parents as police officers and firefighters would soon be rushing to save others, and their fear that their parents would lose their lives was sadly to become true. Soon, anxious parents, grandparents and neighbors came to bring the children to the safety of home, and an eerie silence fell over this always loud neighborhood which stands on one of the busiest stretches of highway in the United States, the Cross-Bronx interchange, and in the pathway of flights into both LaGuardia and Kennedy airports. Our large parish church was soon full, yet silent. We needed to be together.
In a few hours, the silence was broken by a low rumbling as hundreds of people walked up the highway seeking to escape the horrors they had witnessed downtown. Without a thought, food and water came out of the doorways of houses, and the owner of the shoe store facing the highway gave shoes to the women who had kicked off their high heels so as to run for safety. When evil attempts to knock us down, we lift each other up by responding to the practical needs of others, who are not seen as strangers, but companions on the journey to hope.
Companionship in hope was the reason that the parish church was full that night and for weeks of nights to come. We needed to be together, to pray together, to wait together as families desperately implored God to bring missing family members home. As it became clear that all too many from the parish were not coming home to Throgg’s Neck, but had gone home to God, there was no bitterness or anger — only the strains of Resta con noi sung in a way none of us had ever sung it previously.
In the weeks that followed, many priests of the Archdiocese of New York and the neighboring dioceses of the metropolitan area were called upon to assist the police, firefighters, construction workers, nurses, physicians, and people from all walks of life who came together to search for the remains of those who had died. We were there to pray with those working on “the dig”, listen as they tried to make sense of what had happened, minister to those who had died, and walk together. Each Tuesday night, I took my turn, based at the morgue that was set up in what was called The Winter Garden, a gathering space that once was the site of lavish events and now was where bodies were to be identified. Week after week, young firefighters and policemen whom I had taught in secondary school in the 1980s would find me, talk old times and these tough times, and always introduce me to another exhausted policeman or fireman, always their name and where they went to high school. It was almost always one of our Catholic secondary schools: Msgr. Farrell, Cardinal Hayes, Bishop Loughlin. Never to be outdone, the nurses would chime in: “I’m from Bishop Kearney, Cathedral Girls’, Mother Cabrini”. A New York Times writer asserted that 9/11 was a very “Catholic” experience: Catholic school alumni firefighters and police running up the stairs of the burning towers, seeking to rescue Catholic school alumni who were the workers trapped therein.
There was one night I shall never forget. It was a rainy, cold, November Tuesday — one of those late fall nights that, as we say, “goes right through you”. At about 2 a.m. each night, work would stop, and one of the charitable agencies would feed the exhausted workers. A group of former students, covered with dust from the rubble — the dust that would decades later take their lives as now they succumb to the 9/11-related cancer deaths that add to the names of those who have been lost – asked: “Hey Father, could you say Mass for us? We haven’t been to Mass in weeks because we’re always here.” With the ingenuity of New York Catholic school kids, they transported me across “the pile” to St. Peter’s Church, the oldest parish in New York City, on the edge of the rubble and in the center of the destruction. It is the church of the saints of New York, not only Mother Seton, John Neumann, Pierre Toussaint, and Felix Varela, but the everyday saints who for more than two hundred years have prayed there in the midst of their daily work. During the aftermath of 9/11, St. Peter’s was a place of respite as exhausted workers slept in the pews, and a place of respite as they tried to make sense of the destruction through which they would dig. That cold night, the most basic of elements to celebrate the Eucharist made it possible to be nourished by the One who conquered evil by giving of Himself. The hope of the Paschal Mystery became real despite the choking smoke of the smoldering wreckage, and the power of God’s truth renewed the faith of those shaken by violence in the name of religion.
When I returned to the morgue, one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency coroners came up to me and said, “Father, I am an agnostic, ethnically Jewish, and I don’t think there is much to religion. But these people are all your people — kids from Catholic schools. When this is all over, I have to talk to you and find out what makes you Catholics tick, what makes you do this.” When we did talk months later, he told me he had rediscovered his own faith — the faith of the Torah, the faith of Jesus, our shared faith in a God who teaches that memory is the beginning of hope. This is the legacy of 9/11 that can heal a broken world.