There are certain moments in our lives that we never forget. People remember precisely where they were when they recall momentous events. Those of a particular generation recall the exact moment when they learned JFK had been shot or when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart seconds after takeoff, killing all seven crew members. But those who are a bit younger will recall exactly where they were when they learned of the September 11 attacks in the United States.
I remember that Tuesday morning like it was yesterday. It was an absolutely perfect autumn day — cool, dry, crisp, and not a cloud in the sky. I lived in Verona then, a small town in northern New Jersey, just 12 miles west of Manhattan. I walked my dog that morning as was my habit, and then went home to watch the local news. At 8:46 a.m., I watched the live broadcast as American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the Trade Center in Manhattan. We didn’t know it at the time, but our lives were about to be changed forever.
The rest of that day remains somewhat of a blur. I went to my parish offices though I’m not sure why. I believe I just didn’t want to be alone. Like so many, I sought comfort. Our parish bookkeeper’s husband worked in the World Trade Center. Many harrowing hours would pass before she’d learn that he’d escaped unharmed. Thousands of others would not be so fortunate. That afternoon I got a phone call from a distraught neighbor. She worked in Manhattan and had been trying desperately to get out of the city for hours. The bridges and tunnels were closed but she managed to get a ferry across the Hudson to Weehawken, a small town adjacent to the Lincoln Tunnel. I drove to the ferry terminal to pick her up; as I recall she met two others on the ferry who were stranded and without transportation home. I gave them a ride, too. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that there were total strangers in my car. It was surely a tiny gesture but I wanted to help people in any way I could.
In the days and weeks that followed, we heard story after story of those who risked their lives to rescue the people trapped in the towers that day. Police, firefighters, EMTs and civilians climbed the mountain of stairs to assist those trapped on the upper floors of both towers before they collapsed. Then, the effort turned from a rescue to a recovery mission as workers dug through the rubble for months to extricate the remains of innocent victims.
This past weekend, we remembered all who perished on that perfect autumn day — the victims of the September 11 attacks and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to save them. We know about the many first responders who died in the service of their community and country. When I think of the many brave men and women who perished that day, one person in particular comes to mind. He was the first identified victim of the attacks, Victim 0001, and he just happened to be a Roman Catholic priest — Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan Friar.
By all accounts, Father Mychal was a truly remarkable man and priest. A recovering alcoholic, he devoted himself to ministering to those addicted to alcohol and other substances. He ministered to those with AIDS in the 1980s, a time when those diagnosed with the virus were shunned. He held the poor and alienated close to his heart. He once took the coat from his back and gave it to a homeless woman, saying, “She needed it more than me.” Father Mychal was known as a person of deep faith and prayer who always saw the good in others.
In addition to his many other roles and ministries, Father Mychal Judge was the New York City Fire Department’s chaplain. When he learned that the World Trade Center had been hit by the first jetliner, he rushed to the site, saying he needed to be with his men. When Father Mychal arrived, he prayed over bodies lying in the streets, then entered the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower. He continued offering aid and prayers for the rescuers, the injured, and the dead. When the South Tower collapsed, he was struck and killed by flying debris. It’s said he was anointing someone when he himself died.
At Father Mychal Judge’s funeral, former President Bill Clinton said that we must lift his life up as an example of what has to prevail. Clinton said, “We have to be more like Father Mike than the people who killed him.” Surely, Father Mychal left a legacy and example for us all. While he gave his life that September 11, he dedicated his entire life to serving the poor, the sick, the homeless, the marginalized. He died as he lived, helping those in need, and praying for and with God’s people.
Few of us will ever make the ultimate sacrifice that Father Mychal made, but we can follow his example by being faithful and true disciples. We can pray for and with those in need. We can be people of love, people of humility. We can take up our cross, die to self, and follow the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by serving those around us. And that, my friends, is the Good News.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15:13).
Anchor columnist Ada Simpson is former editor of Ministry & Liturgy magazine, holds an M.A. in Pastoral Ministry, and is the director of Music Ministry at St. Francis and St. Dominic parishes in Swansea.