Memories a Year Later

Most of us will never forget where we were when the reports came of the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001. I was attending a meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Administrative Committee in Washington, D.C.

At the news of the first plane's crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York, we thought it was an accident and paused to pray for the victims. Word of the second attack on the south tower, the assault on the Pentagon, and the plane going down in Pennsylvania disclosed the monstrous nature of what was happening. Our prayers became more intense and encompassing.

At noon we concelebrated a special Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a few blocks north of the Bishops' Conference Center. The basilica was jammed, largely with students from the Catholic University of America next door.

Our Administrative Committee was scheduled to meet for 2 days. We concluded the sessions at the end of that first day, addressing only the action items, so that we could return to our dioceses to be with our people for those critical days. Downtown Washington was virtually evacuated that morning, as people ran from buildings worrying where the next target would be.

I was a student priest at the Catholic University in Washington when the news came on November 22, 1963 that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. The reaction was different. Yes, there was an eerie silence then also. But people did not run from the city. By foot, car, and public transportation they converged on the center of the city, particularly around the White House. The casual observer might say they were hypnotized, mesmerized, in something of a trance. Traffic lights would turn green, cars would not move, horns did not blare.

As I reflect on the outrages of those two days years apart, it is clear that there were in both instances strong dynamics simultaneously at work: disbelief at the extent of the horror, and immediate belief in the validity of prayer.

In the early 1980's I was a member of the New York State Governor's Task Force on Life and Law. Along with representatives from the legal and medical professions, we addressed issues such as determination of death (for State law) and do-not-resuscitate regulations (for implementation by the Department of Health). Meetings were held in Albany and New York City, most frequently in the World Trade Center. It staggers belief to realize that the same site could witness such meticulous care for the protection of life and be the target of such thorough contempt for the value of life.

The fiancée (Ellen) of one of my nephews (Ned) was working on the 56th floor of the World Trade Center south tower on 9/11. An economics major in college, she had been working there since her graduation the previous year. When the north tower was hit she started walking down the stairs, and kept walking, praying the rosary. She was still on the stairs when her building was struck, but she kept walking, and praying the rosary. Fortunately she escaped without injury.

Hearing the excitement in Ned's voice over her safety and subsequently listening to Ellen's narration of the events of that morning were experiences that etched in my mind the value of so much that we take for granted every day.

The face of evil was unmasked on 9/11. At the same time goodness was revealed in the midst of a terribly broken world. The response of the firefighters, police officers, emergency personnel, and rescue workers on the scenes and the prayers and financial support which followed from all parts remind us of the capacity for good in the human condition.

The tapes of 9/11 depict over and over the instinctive response of so many that day: "O my God!" To my mind those words were prayers, prayers that have been extended and multiplied in the months since. Prayer is almost second nature to us (hinting at our supernatural calling) in times of suffering: at the bedside of a sick person, at a funeral, in a war zone, at ground zero. We continue to pray now for the victims, their families and loved ones, for our national leaders and leaders across the world.

We pray also for ourselves, that we may appreciate more keenly who we are, what we have, Who made us, and how we can be more accountable to Him in this complex world.

The mystery of good and evil is precisely that: a tremendous mystery. We do believe, however, that evil can be the occasion for the emergence of greater good. Good Friday and Easter Sunday, death and resurrection, speak to us every day and every year of that truth.

Some people may be paralyzed by the terror of 9/11. Others see the impact as a stimulus to deeper appreciation of life, to more effective management of our time, to spending more time with our families, to being more faithful to Mass and the sacraments, to more generous living.

If you are among the former group, we continue to pray for you. If among the latter, then the memories next year and the years thereafter may still be gripped by the wickedness of 9/11, but they will also unveil something more of the mystery of redemption.

Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell
Bishop of Buffalo
August 22, 2002