By Bishop Edward J. Burns
As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, I still recall vividly the events of that day. I was serving in Washington DC as the executive director of the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I walked from my car to the front door of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, DC, looked at the dome on the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and thought to myself that it was a beautiful day. It was to be a busy day because many bishops were coming in for the Administrative Committee of the Bishops’ Conference. The day started with a heightened level of activity due to the presence of the bishops.
But life’s routine changed without a moment’s notice, with the unfolding news that two planes had struck the World Trade Center, then the Pentagon and later, an airline crash in Pennsylvania. The bishops were informed of the attacks, and they released a statement. Cardinal McCarrick scheduled a noon Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The bishops and approximately 5,000 others were at the Mass that day. They joined their prayers to God with so many other people throughout the country and world for peace and for the victims and their families.
As the day unfolded, I heard about a Franciscan priest, chaplain to the firemen in New York, who was killed at the World Trade Center. I later learned that his name was Father Mychal Judge, OFM. He died while ministering to a fallen firefighter. His story was covered by the media. He was given a hero’s farewell at his funeral. I learned that in the scope of all the death certificates that came from that day, Fr. Judge’s death certificate was #0001. His fireman’s helmet was presented to Pope John Paul II on November 10, 2001.
Another priest, Holy Cross priest Fr. Francis Grogan, CSC, former registrar of Stonehill College, boarded United flight 175 in Boston for Los Angeles to visit his family. His airline ticket was a birthday gift and his seat assignment was 1C. Directly behind him in seat 2C was James Hayden, a 1976 graduate from Stonehill College. While no one will ever know for sure what transpired during those horrific moments, it seems inevitable that the two of them together watched this terrifying experience unfold before their eyes. In a letter to the Holy Cross Fathers, Mrs. James Hayden expressed her consolation in knowing that Fr. Grogan was present, realizing with a sure and certain hope that Fr. Grogan prayed and, to the best of his abilities, exercised his priestly ministry during those dreadful moments.
For Father Steven McGraw, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington, it all happened with a wrong turn. On that fateful Tuesday morning, he was on his way to a burial service at the Arlington National Cemetery. He took a wrong turn and found himself 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. After the initial horror, shock, and disbelief, he reached into his glove compartment, took out his stole and holy oils and ran to the scene leaving his car on the road. He was prepared to minister to those in need and equipped to anoint the wounded and dying. As he got there, people were being carried out. He identified himself, prayed with some, anointed others, and offered any words of encouragement he could. He assisted the many workers scrambling on the scene. 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.” She was then taken to a local hospital by helicopter. 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.
The first airliner that crashed into the World Trade Center was piloted by Captain John Ogonowski. He was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, which had departed from Boston and was bound for Los Angeles. His funeral was held at the Church of St. Francis in the Archdiocese of Boston with Father Brian Kiely presiding. In his homily, Father Kiely 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.”
In response to the events of September 11, St. John Paul II said, “Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the last word.”