Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, began as a beautiful day. I was assigned to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., and I recall the sunny clear skies. It was to be a busy day for me due to a major committee meeting.
But life’s routine changed with the unfolding news that two planes had struck the World Trade Center, then the Pentagon and later, an airliner crash in Pennsylvania. I looked out my office window and I could see smoke rising from the Pentagon. Later I heard about a Franciscan priest, chaplain to the New York firemen, who was killed at the World Trade Center. His name was Father Mychal Judge, OFM. He died while ministering to a fallen firefighter. He was beloved by the NY fire fighters and was given a hero’s funeral. His death certificate number was 0001.
Stories of other priests and their involvements surrounding the events of September 11 began to surface. For example, I had the chance to speak to the priest who conducted the funeral for the pilot of the first airliner that crashed into the World Trade Center. It was piloted by Captain John Ogonowski. He was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 which departed from Boston and was bound for Los Angeles. His funeral was held at the Church of St. Francis. The priest was struck by the strong faith of Mrs. Ogonowski and her three daughters. In his homily, he said, “It would be an insult to [John’s] memory and a victory for his murderers if we were to permit any sentiments of hatred to diminish our true dignity as sons and daughters of God. Our presence here today is the result of what unbridled hatred can do in the hearts of others, but in this sacred place, we proclaim again that nothing and no one can ever separate us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.”
Holy Cross priest, Father Francis Grogan, CSC, former registrar of Stonehill College, boarded United flight 175 in Boston for Los Angeles to visit his family. His first class ticket was a birthday gift and his seat assignment was 1C. Directly behind him in seat 2C was a young executive who was a 1976 graduate from Stonehill College. The young man was on his cell phone with his wife whom he met at Stonehill. They both knew Fr. Grogan and pleasantries were exchanged during the phone call. United flight 175 was the second airliner to crash into the World Trade Center. It seems inevitable that the two of them watched the terror of that day unfold before their eyes. In a letter to the Holy Cross Fathers, the widow of the man in 2C expressed her consolation in knowing that Father Grogan was present, realizing with a sure and certain hope that Father Grogan prayed and, to the best of his abilities, exercised his priestly ministry during those dreadful moments.
On September 11th two priests were at the Capitol Building: the chaplain to the House of Representatives, Father Daniel A. Coughlin, and a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA who was scheduled to deliver the opening prayer for the U.S. House of Representatives. Those at the Capitol had already learned about the tragedy in New York. Congress was to start at 10 a.m.. American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:43 a.m. In a clergy newsletter, Father Coughlin described what transpired in the Capitol building at that time: “It was not 10 o’clock yet, but Representative Porter Goss said, ‘We are going to open now.’ We all headed to the chamber. It was 9:52 a.m. when Mr. Goss as the Speaker pro tempore said: ‘Due to the circumstances of today, the Chair calls the House to order at this time. The prayer will be offered by the guest chaplain.’ The priest offered the prayer. With a pound of the gavel, the Speaker pro tempore said, ‘The House will stand in recess subject to the call of the Chair.’ The only act of Congress that day was to pray.”
Father Steven McGraw, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington, was on his way to a burial service at the Arlington National Cemetery. He found himself stopped in traffic next to the Pentagon. American Airlines flight 77 flew twenty feet over his car, clipped a light pole, and crashed into the Pentagon. He jumped out of the car, ministered to those in need and anointed the wounded and dying. He encountered a young woman who was seriously burned. As he was ministering to her, she looked up at him and simply said, “Tell my Mom and Dad I love them.” It was in the evening that Father McGraw made his way back to his car, located exactly where he left it earlier in the day, in the left lane of the road. But it was now tagged and marked by the FBI as a witness car.
At St. Peter’s rectory in Somerset, PA, Father Sean received word from the local hospital that an airplane had gone down in Shanksville. He and several other clergy members went to the hospital. The clergy and trauma team workers waited outside the emergency room. Gowned and gloved, they were prepared for the casualties to come. However, no one came to the emergency room. They were informed that there would be no casualties or bodies. The crash was so devastating that there was no plane.
From my perspective, I believe that there is hope, even in the darkest moments of our world. There is a triumph over sin and hatred, a victory that is rooted in love. I know that love to be the mercy, peace and justice found in Christ. Equipped with this gift of faith, I know that evil, terror, suffering and death will not have the last word.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.