I've spent the whole day avoiding the computer. Of course I have to write something about the anniversary of 9/11/01, don't I? Everyone else is doing it. My crowds of adoring readers (all four of them) expect it from me, don't they?
The truth is that it's a hard thing to remember. Not that the memories don't come back, but that spending time remembering them is not easy. Last week when I was on my way to Alabama, a former parishioner recognized me in the airport and stopped to say hello. I'll be honest, I had no idea who he was (my previous parish, St. James in Basking Ridge, has about 3,000 families, plus it's been over four years since I left there, so give me some slack). But he remembered me and spoke about how me and the pastor, Msgr. Bill Capik, got the parish through 9/11. Six years later, he sees me and that comes to his mind. I admit, I was speechless. Not because of any false and useless pride, but because the moment he mentioned 9/11, all the memories came back at once.
On September 11, 2001, I had been ordained just over three years, and I was is Parochial Vicar (a.k.a. - "the other Priest") at St. James. I remember having the 8am daily Mass that morning, and though I don't remember the readings for the day, I remember saying something in the homily like, "What will it take for people to come to God? What has to happen in their lives to get them to think about God?" I came back from the Mass and made myself breakfast. There were two guests staying in the house that day, Fr. Guy Selvester and a seminarian (now a priest) named Richard Abourjaily (an Australian). Fr. Guy came into the kitchen and together we watched the smoke coming from the World Trade Center. At first we both thought it was a replay of the 1993 WTC bombing, but we remembered that the bombs at that time were in the basement, not in the towers. After a short time, the telephone rang. The parish secretary said there was some unease among the staff at the parish school. One teacher had a brother who worked in the Trade Center, and parents were calling the school asking about whether they should come and take their children home. Then news of the crash into the Pentagon hit. I spent the day over at the school, where we made the decision to not tell the children. All day long a small TV was on in the school library, and faculty peeked in to get the latest information, all the while trying to keep their emotions from showing in the hallways and classrooms. Cell phones weren't working. Rumors were that Camp David was attacked. The White House was evacuated and the President and leaders of Congress were in secure locations. The TV replayed the plane crashes on a constant loop. Even taking the school kids out for recess was tricky (and it just figured that that day was unseasonably pleasant - you couldn't NOT let them go outside) because the smoke from the towers was visible on the horizon. One school family had a husband who worked at the Trade Center, and the wife insisted on coming in and taking her children home (in her heart she already knew something had happened to her husband). I had just performed the marriage of one of my best friends, and I knew he commuted into Manhattan every day, taking the PATH train to the World Trade Center stop; something can't have happened to him, can it? We made it through the day, the pastor in the parish office handling the phone calls and organizing an evening Mass, and me in the school, trying my best to keep teachers calm (and keep the students anesthetized from the world around them) while it seemed that life as we knew it ended on 9/10/01.
At the end of that day we had a Mass; I don't remember what time it was. Now St. James Church has seating for 800 people (the architects said it could seat 1,000, but that's if my butt cheek on the pew begins right where your butt cheek on the pew ends, and we know people don't squeeze into pews like that). That night the church was the fullest I've ever seen. Full pews. Standing in every available space. Standing in the narthex and spilling down the stairs leading from the parking lot. People hugging, crying, praying. People scared, grieving, unsure about the world. We ran out of Communion Hosts, but no one seemed to care (they understood the crowd was just too big). That night I watched in awe as my pastor gave them something to hold on to. God. I spent the morning opining from the pulpit in the daily Mass chapel, "What would it take for people to find God in there lives?", and by the end of the night he was in the main church pulpit telling them, "You've come looking, and God is here." For the next two weeks, it was amazing: lines for Confessions, people who had been away from the Sacrament for years! Weekend Masses had the crowds we normally only got on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday. Yes, those crowds went away by Halloween (Rudy Giuliani asked people to go back to living their lives as they normally did before 9/11 and sadly for many that meant dropping weekly Mass once again), but God had answered my question: I now knew precisely what it would take for people to think about their relationship with God.
Names were floating around. Names of people from the town. "Has anyone heard from ___?" "Yeah, he called his wife a few hours ago. He's fine.", or, "No, no one's seen or heard anything about _____.", or, "Have you heard? _______ called his answering machine and left a goodbye message for his wife and kids." The cars still parked in the lot at the Lyons train station at 11pm were eerie. How many people went to work that day and are dead? That night was, and still is, the only time in our 24-hour cable TV world that I've ever seen TV channels (sports, food, etc.) stop all programming and go dark. Eventually Msgr. Capik spoke to a parishioner who had been a grief counselor, and we asked families of those who died to give us a photograph of them. They were put in a display in front of the altar, along with a row of vigil candles, one per person. A woman, a parishioner, shyly asked if we'd put a photo of her grandson up there. He wasn't a parishioner, but he was missing, too, and could we light a candle for him? Of course we did. I went back to the school. How do you explain this to kids? The truth was that I used the kids, especially the young ones. When the grief would hit me and I was about to "lose it", I'd go in to visit the Kindergartners for a laugh and some smiling faces. Eventually we had a list of 11 people who had died (12 with the lady's grandson, but the family was obviously making arrangements nearer to his home). Tim Soulas, Kevin Hannaford, Lou Fersini, Ludwig Piccaro, Tom Reinig, Chris Forsythe, Stacey McGowan, Steve Genovese, David Campbell, Stephen Dimino, and a few others. All stuck in my head. Yeah, some we had never heard from (Newsflash: not every Catholic is a good Catholic), but their families and friends and even strangers were here now, trying to make sense out of it all and looking to us Priests to do so (and all the while we're trying to make sense of it, too!).
Two weeks of death. As a priest, you're prepared for a sad death, a tragic death: a young child, a battle with cancer or something like a heart attack. But even if you, as a Priest, deal with that sort of death, as bad as it is, the funeral is over in an hour and you can "escape it" and get busy with some other aspect of parish life. That wasn't possible in this case. These were all the same: a historic, infamous event on the world stage which saw the murder of innocent people who had young families. 9/11 was not abstract to these people; it was personal. It had a face, a name, a voice, a smile. The terrorists didn't kill "people" on 9/11, they killed Steve, or Tim, or John, or Stacey. Death hung in the air like mist on a humid morning, right at your eye level, and for a while it seemed like there was never going to be that moment during the day when the mist would burn off. Their children. Oh, man. Looking them in the face? The teens and college-aged sons and daughters just stunned with grief. The toddlers too young to know they should be sad, who'll have no memories of their dads. The unborn ones who won't even have any photos or video of them with their fathers to look at when they're older. In those two weeks we had one funeral (with the one body that was recovered), and the rest were memorial Masses (remains of these victims wouldn't start to trickle in until about a year later, as they excavated the rubble and DNA analysis would give the families perhaps a piece of bone to bury). Every day we dealt with large, sad crowds mourning the loss of a loved one or a friend. Every night everyone went home and watched it replayed and analyzed all over again on TV. Then every day we'd all come back and do it all again with another memorial Mass for another tragic death.
Each year since 2001, I remember not just that day, but the weeks afterwards. But there's nothing I could ever say as people said "Thank you", or, like the guy in the airport, "I remember you during those days." I was just as much a mess as you were. Maybe I hid it better, that's all. The pastor of the parish did most of the work with his leadership and his priestly presence. If I did anything, it was because God and Msgr. Capik put me in the situation and gave me what to do or say. In some ways, those days are burned into my memory. Other ways, it's all a blur of one memory overlapping into another. And each year on this date, or when someone asks me about it, the feelings all come back.