WASHINGTON (August 29, 2003) -- The stories of priests on the scene during the 9/11 attacks on New York City's World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon in Washington are highlighted in We Were There…Catholic Priests and How They Responded.
We Were There…, a compilation of personal accounts of ministry amid ashes and ruin, was produced by the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and is available on the web at www.usccb.org/vocations.
It highlights how the Word of God and the Sacraments infused comfort and hope into the lives of firemen, policemen, and co-workers and families of the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks, notes Father Edward Burns. Father Burns heads the vocation office and spearheaded the We Were There…project.
Contradictory messages stand out, noted Jesuit Father James Martin of America magazine, located in Manhattan, who ministered at Ground Zero in the days afterwards.
"If people doubt the presence of evil in the world, let them come to Ground Zero," he said. "But if people doubt the presence of grace in the world, too, let them come to Ground Zero."
An essay by Father Burns, who began to hear about priests' service the day of the attack, also accompanies the materials. He notes that the only act in Congress that day was prayer led by Father Gerard Creedon, of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, who delivered the opening prayer for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Priests highlighted in We Were There… spoke of the realization of how much their presence as a priest could mean to someone. Father Emile Frische, who coordinates special ministries for the Archdiocese of New York, spoke of a firefighter at a morgue who sat wordlessly on an upside down bucket.
"He didn't want to talk to me. So I found a bucket and turned it upside down and sat with him," Father Frische said. "Not a word was said between us. After a good long time he got up, turned to me and said 'Thank you, Father,' and left."
Many of the priests are chaplains in government agencies, such as the military, police and fire departments, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Others were visitors to town. Still others were priests in parishes near the World Trade Center.
Father Thomas Iwanowski, who was pastor of a parish in Jersey City, New Jersey, a few blocks from the Hudson River, recognized that his parish would be pressed into service and put up flyers in the neighborhood that his church was a place where people could come. Among those who showed up for help were five men, soaking wet, who had run from the World Trade Center area, jumped into the Hudson, been picked up by a police boat and deposited on the Jersey side of the river. They wanted to call home. Others came from a hotel and arrived in their sleep wear. Another group included 22 students from the High School of Economics and Finance, located next to the World Trade Center. They had been brought by ferryboat to New Jersey and didn't know where they were. During the day the parish held prayer services, fed people, and found housing for 18 teenagers and 21 adults, including an 87-year-old Jewish woman from Battery Park City who ended up staying in the parish convent.
Father LaVerne Schueller, a retired Air Force colonel, who now is an auxiliary chaplain in Florida, was at a chaplains' conference in the Pentagon when the plane hit there. They evacuated the building and were advised to leave the area. They stayed, knowing there would be lots to do. They helped move people, held IV bags for the wounded in the triage area, and witnessed a different kind of heroism.
Father Schuller described a civilian. One of her legs was burned, the other, broken. She was Phillipina and likely a Catholic. Father Schueller identified himself as a priest.
She looked up from her stretcher, saying, "Father, will you please get word to my husband that I am okay?"
He described the fear he felt when the chaplains heard a false alarm that an unidentified aircraft was heading toward the Pentagon.
"I have dedicated my life to trying to serve God and His people," Father Schuller said. "But I am a man of many faults. However, at that point I was comforted by remembering Jesus' words, 'Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for another.'"
Father David Baratelli, chaplain of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, celebrated Mass in a gym in the days after 9/11. One day a lieutenant asked him to bring Communion to early morning workers at Ground Zero who couldn't get to Mass.
"And so the two of us walked down to the site with the ciborium containing the Eucharist. As I stood in the midst of the rubble, one by one, workers came over, uncovered their heads and received the Eucharist. Christ was truly present and he brought consolation and hope to this place of terrible sorrow and death."
Father Kevin Smith, chaplain of the Nassau County Fire Department, in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was with the firemen who brought Franciscan Father Mychal Judge's body into St. Peter's Church, a triage center. Firefighters laid it in the sanctuary and Father Smith went and found a stole for his friend and fellow fire chaplain.
"I placed the stole and Mychal's badge on the covered litter on his chest," he said. Soon the church had to be evacuated. Two Franciscans asked to take the body to their residence so it would not be lost if another building collapsed. A New York Fire Department medical officer pronounced Mychal deceased and assigned him death certificate number one for 9/11.
Father Burns, notes that the remembrances in We Were There… are only a few of the stories that can be told.
"As one would expect, priests throughout the country led prayer services, celebrated Mass, and brought a message of God's consolation to a people and a nation in mourning," Father Burns wrote in his essay, The Priests of September 11, 2001: Men of Word and Sacrament. "In continuing to hear stories such as these, I still collect them, look for them and inquire about them. They are stories of priests doing what priests do best – bringing people to God and bringing God to people – through the Word and Sacraments."