‘Lord, take me where you want me to go'
9/11, 10 years on - SacrificeJohn Felice
- 10 September 2011
Tuesday 11 September 2001 was a cloudless, pristine day in early fall. I was on the way to the funeral of a fellow friar in New Jersey and, as I headed towards the West Side Highway, the car radio announced the crash of a plane at the World Trade Center. I looked to my left and saw a faint puff of smoke coming from the North Tower.
By the time I had crossed the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, a second plane had hit the South Tower. The city went into lockdown and there was no turning back. The news announced the death of Fr Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar from St Francis of Assisi Church and a chaplain of the New York Fire Department. It was time for me to find some way to get home. Late that night, I managed to get a police escort back into the city.
My room in the friary was right below Fr Mychal's and we both had windows that looked out on to 31st Street and the fire station across the way. It always seemed to me a place of camaraderie and easy banter, a kind of secular friary. The Holy Name Province's relationship with the fire department began in the early 1970s with Fr Julian Deacon, who was a member of the friar staff at St Francis Church and struck up a relationship with the firefighters across the street.
Gradually this relationship became formalised and Fr Julian continued his service until his death in the late 1980s. Fr Mychal was his successor and after his death the role passed to Fr Christopher Keenan, the current fire chaplain. This long and wonderful relationship has enriched us both. The firefighters and the friars have a similar sense of camaraderie, loyalty and mutual respect.
The morning after 9/11, reality began to sink in. I saw one of the fire trucks covered with dust and debris, its ladder half raised with an American flag at its top. The firefighters were quietly standing still just trying to absorb the unimagined, the loss of members from their own house. People began to bring flowers and lay them at the door of the station. The shock of the tragedy began to settle in like the cloud of ash that hung over the city for days. The grief and the mourning and the funerals without caskets began to unfold day after day, week after week for months.
But we had our own loss to mourn. Fr Mychal died at the foot of the North Tower wearing his fire chaplain coat and tending to his beloved fellow firefighters. The picture of Fr Mychal's body being carried out of the rubble by four first responders became the lasting image of the larger loss of life and the bodies that were never rescued from the debris. Fr Mychal officially became the first person listed among the dead of 9/11. His funeral and his legend began to grow from that day.
A few months later, I was asked to say a few words at an awards ceremony honouring Fr Mychal. I said, in part: "Although that tragic event took the lives of almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, Mychal became the symbol of our grief as a city and as a nation. His selfless act brought meaning and dignity in the face of the incomprehensible destruction of that day. His actions and those of his beloved firefighters, as well as the police and emergency service workers, gave us something to be proud of at one of our darkest moments."
And of Fr Mychal himself I said: "There is a rush to canonise Mychal these days and I think it is a mistake. In making saints out of people, we often shove them away from our experience and place them on a pedestal. He was a very human, flawed, complex person just like the rest of us. His real legacy to each one of us is that such is the stuff of greatness. Our limits are largely self-imposed. Our willingness to say yes, more than no, to the events and people that make up our day teaches us the life lesson of putting others first. It is a freeing and joyful way to live."
Ten years have gone by since that terrible day. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 comes with mixed feelings. If you lived in New York City at the time of this tragedy, deep emotions are still attached to the event. The overwhelming sense of loss and destruction lingered long after the collapse of the towers. There is an uneasy feeling when picking through the carnage of the past and a reluctance to remember again those sad days. But time moves on.
On the footprint of the North Tower now a new building is rising, and the World Trade Center memorial is complete. But the years between have brought two intractable wars, the continuing loss of life and treasure, vastly increased security measures and the uneasy estimate of the lives lost for the Iraq and Afghan people. No one can guess how long our military presence will remain in the region. No one has yet to discover the language that can begin to heal the cultural and ethnic divisions that have seemed to only grow worse.
But life does go on. We will never forget the courage, the kindness and the deep-felt bond that held us together as a people during those first months. It is with the eye of history that we need now to consider the wisdom of the courses we have chosen since 9/11 and the impact they have left on our world. We cannot remake the past but we can all help fashion the future. I am reminded of a simple prayer attributed to Fr Mychal:
Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say,
And keep me out of your way.
Fr John Felice OFM was provincial minister of the Franciscan Friars' Holy Name Province, which serves primarily the eastern coast of the United States, from 1996 to 2005. He is currently director of St Francis Friends of the Poor in New York City, which he co-founded in 1980 to provide housing for the mentally ill.