Saturday, September 10, 2016

September 11th: Remembering Where We Stood and Why We Stand

Several years ago I was visiting a parishioner of mine and somehow the conversation turned towards World War Two. In a flash, her face filled with emotion and her voice shook with a mixture of sorrow and anger as she remembered the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  I remember thinking how amazing it was that (at the time) almost sixty years had passed since that horrific event, but that she welled up with emotion as though it happened just days before. I think of that conversation as we now approach the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Most of the students with whom I now serve only have vague memories of that day or no memory of it at all. For most of them, it is a defining date in history, but they don't remember that beautiful September morning. They don't remember what it was like to live in a world where they didn't have to worry about an unattended backpack. 

For those of us who do remember that day, it is not like a page from a history book. For us, it is less like going through the archives of a library and more like going through a family photo album. We were all suddenly close to one another. Those firemen and police personnel were members of our families. The stockbrokers, secretaries, passengers, they were our neighbors. Even though for many of us, we had never met these people, we mourned them. We still do.

Every year, as this date approaches, like many others, my mind begins to turn the pages of that photo album. I was a young priest, ordained just four years. I was teaching catechism in the Seventh Grade classroom when the teacher from next door came in and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. In my mind, I thought she meant some small plane. Certainly a tragedy, but I was confused why she had interrupted my class to tell me that.  I thanked her and went back to teaching.  A short while later she came back and said that a second plane had hit and that they think it might be a terrorist attack. Parents were calling the school to see if we were going to dismiss the students. I was even more confused because I was thinking, "Okay, two small private planes hit the building. How much damage could that do? And why would we dismiss school?" She told me that since the principal was out of the building and parents were calling, perhaps I should go to the office.  I went downstairs and passed the music room where some teachers were watching the television. I was dumbfounded.

Another memory I have is that I asked the pastor if we could offer an evening Mass that night just in case anyone wanted to come. These were the days before social media, so any advertising for the Mass was purely word of mouth. That evening, our church was packed. A few days later, we had Mass in the middle of the day for a day of mourning, and again, the church was jammed packed. It touched me that in that moment, so many people turned to God. I remember ending my homily by quoting the last verse of "America:" "O Beautiful, for patriots' dream that sees beyond the years. Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears. America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown Thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea."

We remember hearing the stories of those whose lives were taken, the heroism of so many brave men and women, and the endless sound of bagpipes. We remember seeing images of parking lots filled with cars whose owners would never return to reclaim them. I remember seeing news footage of the next day at Buckingham Palace when they played the Star Spangled Banner at the Changing of the Guard. 

It didn't last long, but for a brief moment, amid a national tragedy, we were all together. We stood together. We mourned as a family and we reacted as a family. There still remained political differences among us, but what united us was stronger than what divided us. 

When I stand for the National Anthem, I don't do so because I think America is perfect. It never has been perfect. I stand because, despite our imperfections, our disagreements, and even our failures, we are a people. We are a family. I will stand because of soldiers who died on the beaches of Normandy and for men who built railroads across the land. I stand for those who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr and with those who advocate for the protection of the unborn. I will stand for parents who raised families and sacrificed for their children. I will stand for firefighters who laid down their lives for others. I will stand for Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans. I will stand for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Atheists. I will stand for teachers, union laborers, attorneys, nurses, doctors, and the unemployed. I will stand for young and old, healthy and sick. I will stand for the homeless and the wealthy. I will stand for Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Independents.  I will stand even for those who misguidedly refuse to stand with the rest of us. 

On September 11th 2001, we stood together as a nation. That's where I still stand, together.


  1. I was a parent who called my 2 youngest children's school to take them home from IC, Malden. I went to Pope John High school to get another child. Even though I worked at MGH as a nurse, I had another job in Charlestown as a gift basket maker. I told them I had to leave as I was hearing a 3rd plane was not accounted for and I needed to get my kids. I was trapped in the Scrafft's rotary for 1 1/2 hours panicking. When I finally got my boys from Immaculate and my daughter from high school there was word our parish in Malden/ Medford was having a mass that evening. My 4 kids , husband and I all went and we felt our community/ church family gave us strength and courage. We were connected in our fears but being together was what we all needed. We won't forget that!

  2. Very moving post, you captured our experience perfectly. I only wish those churches had remained packe!

  3. Thank you so much, Father for this story, My own dear son, Father Steve McGraw was in God's Providence at the Pentagon on 9/11 "by accident? No not hardly.... God bless you!!!