The World Trade Center attack changed some priests forever, according to reports from clergy involved in 9/11.
Writing to the US bishops’ Office for Vocations and Priestly Formation, priests showed the depth of the experience on parishioners, firefighters, families and themselves.
Msgr. John Delendick, a fire chaplain for the City of New York, recalled funeral and memorial services, up to 16 per day, for the Fire Department of New York which suffered the loss of 343 men in the disaster. He escorted families of deceased firefighters to the World Trade Center “Ground Zero.”
“I would ask the family members to be quiet and to speak to their loved ones in their hearts and then take a few minutes to listen for their loved ones to speak back,” he said in a letter. “From here we would escort them to a makeshift memorial, where we prayed, and they left their flowers or teddy bears or pictures.”
Another Brooklyn priest, Father Robert J. Romano, deputy chief chaplain of the New York Police Department, recalled walking through the rubble.
“I started to find out that many of the cops I knew were among the dead,” he wrote. He found that “a college seminary classmate, several of my altar boys and my godson also perished that day.”
Father Romano said Mass for workers at Ground Zero. “I would tell them, ‘Give me 22 minutes and I’ll give you faith,’” he wrote.
“I give thanks to God for using me and for allowing me to fulfill three promises I made on 9/11: to celebrate Mass and the Sacraments at the site until the recovery and clean up were finished and to bless and walk out of the ‘pit’ the bodies of every one of our police officers that were found. Two of these promises I have kept. I pray that I will be able to keep the third, to remember the deceased and their families so long as I have breath in me.”
Msgr. Joseph Slepicka, a pastor in Clear Lake, Iowa, felt the intensity of the experience with the family of Thomas Burnett Jr., who went down on terrorist-controlled Flight 93, when it crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Burnett’s father and Father Slepicka had been friends from kindergarten. The family called him after the younger Burnett told his wife from the plane, “We’re going to do something.”
Father Slepicka described a stone erected after Burnett’s funeral with the quote from the Gospel of John 15:13: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” He described Burnett’s grave at Fort Snelling, with the inscription “Citizen Soldier, Flight 93.”
Bishop Blase Cupich, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Vocations and Priestly Formation, said the stories summarized the meaning of priesthood for him.
“The men showed the very human face of Christ to those in need,” he said. “Through Mass and the Sacraments they brought grace to an otherwise graceless moment. They selflessly entered into the pain of those in their care and it changed them and their priesthood forever.”
The stories of the priests of 9/11 can be found at usccb.org/vocations/wewerethere.shtml.
(This update is courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishops.)