September 11, 2021
Posted: Fri, 10 Sep 2021 10:33
© Jesper Blijdestein
This reflection, written by Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB, reflects on the events of September 11, 2001, and of Fr Mychal Judge OFM
Watch and reflect:
Those of us of a certain age, we will remember well what we were doing on 11th September (9/11 is US speak) 2001. I remember the day well as I was in Oxford to attend an interview for a teaching post. On my happy drive back to London in the early afternoon, my mobile phone was 'pinging' throughout the drive as I listened to my then CD of choice, the soundtrack to 'Les Miserables'. When I got to my home in Battersea, I saw that my friend and fellow Salesian, Pat Kenna had left numerous voicemails and texts, stating quite simply, 'turn on the news!'
For the rest of the evening and night, I was glued to BBC News, as the world watched, in disbelief and horror, as passenger airliners ploughed into the iconic Twin Towers and the home of US defence, the Pentagon. Only a couple of weeks before I had met up with a cousin, who worked in Lower Manhattan, for a meal in the Marriot restaurant at the South Tower. Little did we know, as we laughed and reminisced over excellent pasta on that warm August afternoon, that this was going to the site of one of the world's biggest mass murders. Living in large cities, we have become used to seeing large aircraft in the skies, as they transport us around the world for business and holidays. Air travel has become the accepted norm even in my home community of Mayo. Although we are on the very edge of Europe with our nearest Westerly neighbour, Nova Scotia, daily flights from Ireland West Airport connect us to all major British cities, along with Milan, Malaga and Palma. It is fair to say that the airport at Knock has helped to promote an economic and social miracle in the West.
On that fateful September day al-Qaeda terrorists boarded four commercial airlines in Boston, Washington and Newark in a clearly well-planned attack on the US mainland. Within hours, two planes brought the Twin Towers down—these were symbols of American strength and wealth, featuring strongly in movies and even comedies like 'Friends'. To be fair there was an assumption that these buildings would last forever. On that bleak day, hijacked aircraft ploughed into them, leaving a gaping hole in the psyche of the global community. Another plane hit the Pentagon building, while a fourth, possibly aiming for the White House itself, crashed into a corn field in Pennsylvania—most likely as a result of a brave passenger revolt against the terrorists.
We, in Europe, had become all too aware of terrorism with the activities of the IRA, ETA and Middle Eastern terror groups. This led to an increase in surveillance and airport security that our American cousins very often found intrusive and an infringement of their rights. The ease that the 9/11 terrorists were able to board these commercial airliners pointed to both lax security, but more worryingly, very poor intelligence. Mohamed Atta and his fellow terrorists breezed through the perfunctory security tests at Boston's Logan Airport, even though their bags had been selected for a detailed search. American Airlines flight 11 set off for Los Angeles only a minute late at 7.46am. Only fifteen minutes into their flight the al-Qaeda group stormed the cockpit, took command, and slammed the 767 into the North Tower, just one hour after leaving Boston. So began an orgy of violence that ended at 10.03 am when United Airlines flight 93 crash landed in the Shanksville field. In less than three hours, thousands had been murdered in the largest act of terrorism on US soil.
Images of the shocked reaction of then President George Bush were shown around the world. He was in an elementary school in Sarasota, while he listened to the children read. His look of horror and total disbelief echoed the feelings of millions throughout the world: how could this possibly happen? However, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, US airspace was closed down., with Canada offering sanctuary to aircraft flying to the US. The great city of New York was forced to respond to the horror of a second attack with United Airlines flight 175 crashing into the South Tower. In a matter of a couple of hours, these great buildings were just rubble in lower Manhattan.
Under the dignified and measured leadership of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the city's emergency services sprang into action. However, thousands of paramedics and firefighters from across the States and the globe came to support those initial responders. The New York Fire Department were stretched to breaking point on that eventful day. They were powerless to help people trapped in the burning buildings before they fell down. Machines rushed to the scene with many firefighters entering the ruined buildings never to return. Among the thousands who died that day was Fr Mychal Judge, a Franciscan who was a chaplain to the Fire Department who took his responsibilities very seriously.
Judge was Brooklyn born and bred into the Great Depression. His Irish-American family knew poverty, hardship and death, prompting him to explore a vocation as a friar. Ordained in 1961, he had a variety of assignments in Franciscan-run parishes where he was noted for his outreach to the poorest of the poor. For years he had a serious drink problem and he credited Alcoholics Anonymous for saving his life—to the end, he attended his AA meetings to ensure that his life did not enter the downward spiral again. It was precisely because of his own problems that he could identify with the outcasts that he would daily meet in the squalid streets of the less salubrious parts of Manhattan—well off the tourist map. He was one of the few priests who choose to work among the gay community at the hight of the AIDS crisis: at the St Clare's Hospice, a dying man asked him, 'how can God love me?' Judge's simple response was to embrace the man in a strong hug, leaving him with no doubt of divine unconditional care.
Noted for his compassion and deep pastoral care, Judge was appointed chaplain to the busy Fire Service in 1992. It was a job that involved supporting not only the front-line staff, but also their families, especially in times of crisis and death that was never far away. Fr Mike was a trusted friend and confidant to so many. It was no surprise that he was counter-cultural to the end: while experts were telling citizens to move uptown and away from the disaster, Fr Mike donned his helmet and hitched a ride with a fire engine to the Twin Towers. Survivors spoke of his enthusiasm and friendly encouragement—as they entered the buildings, they received a needed blessing from their friend. Fr Mike was the man who had conducted their marriage ceremonies and the baptisms of their children. He was with them in their darkest hours, as they buried friends and colleagues. Without doubt, the strong presence of the Franciscan friar brought a sense of peace to those in need on that day. Like many of his colleagues, Judge was hit by falling debris when the second plane hit. Sharon Stapleton's photograph for the Reuters News became a symbol of the pain wrought by these terrorists. Firefighters carried the body of their friend out of the chaos; it seemed that he was just sleeping so peacefully. Even in his death, Fr Mike seemed to be able to bring peace of God into this unadulterated evil around. Judge was designated as "Victim 0001" and thereby recognized as the first official victim of the attacks. Although others had been killed before him, including the crews, passengers, and hijackers of the first three planes, and occupants of the towers and the Pentagon, Judge was the first certified fatality because he was the first body to be recovered and taken to the medical examiner.
His funeral on 16th September was a celebration of his wonderful self-giving life. The poor of the city rubbed shoulders with the likes of former President Clinton and Mayor Giuliani. Awards followed from the French Legion d'honneur to the US Congress passing the 'Fr Mychal Judge Police and Fire Chaplains Public Safety Officers Benefit Act' into law. However, the greatest award we can give Fr Mychal is to ensure that his legacy of care and understanding continues. We all have a duty to respond to needs as best we can. On being given a free ticket for travel anywhere in the US, he chose to visit a friend in prison in California 'just to surprise him!' It is that spontaneity and Christian joy that we need more of in the world today, especially as we move out COVID restrictions. He had the ability to find God in the most unusual of spaces, as his close friend, Brendan Fray reflected, 'the streets of New York was Mychal Judge's cathedral, and where he found God, on these city streets.'
In an era that has seen the quick canonisation of John Paul II, it is not surprising that many are calling for his elevation to sainthood. It may well happen, especially with support from the Protestant pastor, Sal Sapienza who ministered with him in the AIDS hospice, who said, 'It was so clearly obvious you were with someone so spiritually connected, so different from other people. What is a saint? Part of it is they inspire us to want to rise higher along our spiritual path, to be the best versions of what God wanted us to be. Mychal was the best example of that.' Reading about Judge's typical Franciscan humility, I suspect that he would snub any push for honour. Instead, he would point to his colleagues who ran up the stairwells of the Twin Towers looking for survivors. He would look at those brave passengers on United flight 93 who were not going to allow the terrorists to win. He would remind us of those brave cabin attendants who relayed valuable intelligence about the murderers to the FBI before they fell to their deaths. Fr Mike pointed beyond himself to the glory of God; on that awful day, twenty years ago, we saw both the evil of the human form, and its glory. A self-proclaimed fallen man can offer us hope and confidence, as we are forced to face our own demons. Perhaps his daily prayer could become our own:
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 (the Prayer of Fr Mychal)
Image of New York: © Lerone Pieters on Unsplash
Image of Roses: © Jesper Blijdestein on Unsplash