The Catholic Heroes of 9/11 Show Us How to Act Today

A coincidence put the National Catholic Register in an unexpectedly strong position to cover the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. What emerged from that coverage, for me, was not just a new approach to Catholic journalism, but a new understanding of the role of people of faith in the world today.

I was the executive editor of the paper when 9/11 happened. The paper was based right there, in North Haven, Conn., on the commuter train line to New York. By providence, two staff members had recently left the paper to move to New York in 2001. Another moved to Washington, D.C. That meant that, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001:

  • Former Register associate editor Joe Cullen was at Mass just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. He gave us an eyewitness account.
  • Former staff writer Brian McGuire was at Columbia Journalism School in the city. He interviewed a priest at Ground Zero.
  • Staff writer Josh Mercer was in Washington, D.C. He reported from the National Shrine.
  • Future news editor John Burger already had a strong relationship with the paper, and reported from New York. He gave us some of the first coverage of Father Mychal Judge and reported that the Friars of the Renewal were mistaken for Muslims.
  • Andrew Walther, who later became a leader at the Knights of Columbus, provided a balanced piece on Islam.

The coverage they provided was some of the best Sept. 11 coverage in Catholic journalism, and I believe some of the best in journalism, period.

The experience helped the Register find its place: Many Catholic journalists spent their time writing about trouble in the Catholic world — the disappointing ways the world was changing the Church. We were reporting about how in culture, politics and education, the Church was transforming the world. I still think that’s the truer and more interesting story, because, in the end, the truths of faith will be left standing while the mistakes of the world will become memories of regret.

I give Jim Beckman at the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City credit for teaching me this, though I don’t think I have ever met him. When we covered the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, our headline was “Faith and Heroism Transform Tragedy” over a story largely supplied by his work with a parish near the high school at that time. “Teens ‘Are Running to Our Churches,’” said another that heavily quoted him.

Because of the work he did then, when the 9/11 attacks happened, we knew that our job was to find the stories of faith and hope that we fully expected to be there. And there they were.

Tom Burnett, a daily-Mass goer, father and businessman, helped take down United Airlines Flight 97. Our story about him, by Tim Drake, was called: “To Pray, to Act, to Fight: A Hero’s Life”

His wife told us that Tom spoke to her a year before Sept. 11, 2001, and told her he had started to go to daily Mass.

Tom had never done that before so his wife asked him why.

He said that he felt like God was trying to tell him something, but he didn’t know what it was. He said that he felt that if he could spend more time in church, sitting in God’s presence, and more time in prayer, perhaps he could figure it out.

After she pressed him about what God’s “message” might be, he said, “All I know is that it’s going to impact a great number of people and it has something to do with the White House.”

His wife thought maybe he was supposed to run for office. He said he was certain that’s not what it was.

Then, on Sept. 11, this man’s life of prayer and communion with Christ made him one of the leaders in the plan to take down the plane before it could reach the White House. He called his wife to tell her what he was doing, and she heard his voice as one of the leaders of the resistance on the plane.

Father Peter Philominraj, was saying Mass that morning in Our Lady of Victory near the World Trade Center.

As that Mass was getting over around 8:45, they heard the first impact. Someone came running in with debris on him already. After the second blast someone came inside and said there was someone dying just outside the church. Father gave him anointing right there on the steps.

He said as people escaped from the buildings some ran over to him to make confessions. Some would say, “Just give me absolution, Father,” as they hurried to get out of the place.

Priests were heroes that day. The fire department and police in New York at the time was mostly Irish and Italian. The Register reported, “Fire Department officials asked the priests to give general absolution and the last rites to firefighters and police entering or in close proximity to the buildings.”

Father Mychal Judge (pictured above) gave general absolution to firemen who were entering one of the towers, knowing that they there was a high likelihood they would never return. Then Father Mike himself was struck by something falling off the building.

Firefighters describe how all activity stopped as they carried Father Mychael’s body away as people stopped running and took off their helmets to him.

Father James Hayes worked closely with the Fire department and got a call when the first plane hit.

He got in a taxi while he was headed over there the second plane hit. The driver let him out as debris and glass was filling the air.

He said as he was walking to the Trade Center he saw many, many shoes on the sidewalk. People abandoned their shoes as they ran way. Groups were huddled inside stores and buildings.

Then, he was engulfed in a cloud of debris, and took cover under a car. He ministered as best he could to people that night and returned to Ground Zero to search for survivors the next day.

Father Hayes tells the story of “A big guy in a hard hat and tattoos” approaching him, saying “Thank you, padre!” and handing the priest a piece of paper. It said:

“When death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in the shapes of mercy, charity and love, to walk the world and bless it.”

Father Chris Hynes was three blocks away from the towers when the attack started, and he was still there ministering when the first building went down. He saw a police officer running toward him coated in ash.

He went into a drug store, grabbed bottled water and poured it on the policeman, who jokingly called the priest “One of the first New York looters.”

Father Geno Sylva came later and helped at Ground Zero. He said workers weren’t finding whole bodies so he would just bless whatever remains they brought up in a plastic bag. He and a rabbi were both doing this.

Then, after that physically and emotionally exhausting work, he returned to his parish in New Jersey, which included many people who worked in the Trade Center and never came home, to find dozens of messages asking for pastoral care.

He told the heart-rending story about responding to a phone call from a family he was close to at his previous parish. When he arrived at their home, all covered in dirt, their 7-year-old daughter, to whom he had had given first Communion, asked, “Father Geno, did you dig out my Daddy?”

“All I could do was keep hugging her,” he said.

Lay people were heroes too.

Not only were many of them Italian and Irish Catholics, they were Knights of Columbus. I’ll never forget the display the Knights of Columbus headquarters made of the Mass cards from their funeral Masses. It covered a wall and it was heart-rending

Timothy Stackpole was a 42-year-old firefighter on his way home after his regular shift. When he heard the news he made a U-turn and headed back to the World Trade Center. He had barely survived a fire in 1998 and had to go through a recuperation process that took years. He was a father of five and a marriage-preparation speaker when he returned to his post in March 2001.

A priest and a firefighter were among the last people to see Stackpole alive on Sept. 11, 2001.

“He went in but wouldn’t let me go in with him until I got a mask,” said the firefighter. “Then the building came down.”

Police Officer Jerome Dominguez, 37, was helping people down from the 20th floor of the North Tower when his co-workers told him he had better get downstairs. But he headed up instead, to get more people out. He was never seen again.

“Thank God we have faith,” said his father. “That’s how we hold up.”

We later interviewed Olympic champion rower and Ground Zero rescue worker Jason Read, who said it was seeing a priest blessing body parts at Ground Zero and that sparked his conversion to the Catholic faith.

My family was changed by that day, too. Every neighborhood near New York was filled with American flags and “God Bless America” signs, and to this day I hold out hope for the people of America, seeing how we behaved then. But it was also in the aftermath of the attacks that Pope John Paul II said:

“I appeal to all — individuals, families and communities — to pray the Rosary for peace, if possible daily, so that the world will be preserved from the dreadful scourge of terrorism, so that hatred and death will never have the last word!”

We never prayed the daily rosary before that, but we have ever since.

Judith Toppin wrote an account of Paul Carris’s sacrifices rescuing her from the World Trade Center. Carris went on to be ordained a Catholic deacon.

Which brings me to one last Register 9/11 scoop. Wayne Laugesen talked to former New York Mayor Ed Koch in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. What Koch, who is Jewish, said, is remarkable.

Koch explained that, after watching the Twin Towers fall, he immediately went to St. Patrick’s cathedral to pray. Why St. Patrick’s?

“Unlike a lot of other religions, Catholicism is not a salad bar,” Koch told the Register. “It’s very clear what Catholicism means and what it is about. You either are, or you are not, a practicing Catholic. Those who are not Catholic see this, and they admire it. That’s one reason people turn to the Catholic Church at a time like this.”

That day, regular guys who raised Catholic families showed what our faith truly is. These were men who, on Sept. 11, sent out an urgent call for priests to give them general absolution before they charged into the burning buildings or to give them last rites if they stumbled out.

And they didn’t just die attempting to do good for others; they died succeeding in saving large numbers of people from certain death — about 80% of the people at work that morning, by some calculations.

Ordinary virtues accounted for their extraordinary success that day. The rescuers were prompt, responding quickly to the call. They were careful and thorough in the evacuation. They generously put concern for themselves aside for the sake of others.

The heroes of Sept. 11 aren’t martyrs, exactly. They weren’t saints. But their deaths have a deeply Christian meaning. To die for others is the closest imitation of Christ’s love possible.

“This event has been a great evil,” said Jean Palombo, a mother of 10, who lost her husband, Frank, a fire­fighter. But “God’s love has exceeded this evil.”

She credits Frank with, her Catholic faith. “The Lord gave him to me; the Lord took him from me,” she said. “Blessed be the Lord.”

It is highly unlikely that many of us will be called on to rescue large numbers of people from disaster. That doesn’t mean we can’t imitate those who did. The Letter of St. Jude in the Bible actually says all Christians should imitate firefighters. St. Jude imagines a future when society will give in to the worst possible sins and tells Christians that we must be apostles.

“Save others by snatching them out of the fire,” he writes. His simple plan is one we could all take up: Pray, avoid sin, and bring others to the Church.

The spiritual battle for souls in the world is very much like the attack on the World Trade Center. The spiritual enemy we face doesn’t want to compromise with us. He doesn’t want to negotiate. He simply wants to kill as many souls as possible, how­ever he can.

In this ongoing battle, God needs us all to be heroes.

Image: Father Mychal Judge,
AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story on Ex Corde. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.