Sep. 11, 2016
Turning on the TV, I expected a small plane had hit the side of the building, but instead I heard that a second plane had hit the other tower. Soon, like millions of Americans, I was glued to the TV. Together with the parish staff, we watched as events unfolded in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, seeing things that no one should ever have to see.
I called a friend in Hawaii waking him at 4am with the news. I found out my brother had flown out of Newark that very morning but made it safely to Atlanta. My pastor and I went to the church and opened all the doors, turned on the lights, exposed the Eucharist, and lit all the candles.
We knew people would be stopping by and we wanted them to know they were most welcome to spend time in prayer. We went to the parish school, walking from classroom to classroom, trying to figure out which children had parents working in the city. One of the parents of our school children was an engineer in the WTC and he did not come home that day.
In the weeks that followed I found myself celebrating two funerals for parishioners I had known. One was a lector in my first parish, Richard, at mass every Sunday with his wife and two children. I can never stop by a 9-11 memorial without looking to find their names.
Stories still abound of those who escaped and those who didn’t. Of those running up the steps into the fire to rescue those coming down. The damage of the hearts and minds and bodies persists even today for the survivors of that day and those who worked in its aftermath.
Fifteen years seems at once still so close and yet far enough away to consider the legacy of that day. A legacy of war and death; a legacy of more security but a little less freedom; a legacy of suspicion and in some cases even racism. Maybe it is time to remember the eternal legacy of Christ who teaches that love is stronger than hate and forgiveness is stronger than revenge.
For some people, the legacy of 9-11 is that they will not travel by plane. Or they have a fear of heights. I lived in a parish in Jersey City as the Freedom Tower was being built. As I watched it climb to over 100 stories, I remember thinking that it's beautiful, but I will never go up there.
About three years ago, a friend of mine who knew someone on the construction site invited me and several other priests to visit. I thought we were going to the 9-11 memorial.
Wasn’t I surprised when they brought us through a locked gate into the construction site. At that time there was still a cargo elevator running along the outside of the building all the way to the top.
Wasn’t I even more surprised when we entered the elevator and climbed 100 stories outside of the building!
When we exited, we were in a fenced-in area on top of the elevator shaft, looking at an enormous and tiny world below us. Then we turned and entered the freedom tower from about the 100th floor. We were given a spectacular tour which was both exhilarating and emotional. In some ways, there was an almost forced healing in that visit and a realization that maybe the unexpected push is sometimes needed to move forward.
They took us to the roof of the building. Around the base of the large antenna, workers had written the names of people who had died on 9-11, so I took the marker and added Richard’s name.
Everything that goes up in this world must come down we are told, but the heart of God will never allow anything he loves that has fallen not to be raised up again. There are no lost sheep or lost coins that God will not go out of his way to find and raise up to new life.
Today, we look back with, yes some anger and sadness; but there is no future for our world unless we can look forward with forgiveness and hope. When visiting Ground Zero, Pope Francis said, “for all of our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace.”
May God heal us, protect us, and push us forward through fear into the world he wants; we all want; a world of hope and peace.