Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey,
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Those of us who were alive on September 11, 2001, remember exactly where we were on that awful day. We can still feel the pain, grief and emptiness of those awful events. We remember our awareness that something had happened of such magnitude that it would change our lives forever. And it has.
There are so many stories behind the lives of those killed, stories attached to the names that are read each year. There are those, like JoAnn and Tom Meehan of Christ Church, Toms River, whose daughter Colleen Ann Meehan Barkow died at The World Trade Center at the age of 26. Each year, the Meehans sponsor a resolution for our Diocesan Convention, urging us to “never forget” their daughter and the others who were killed. And each year we do remember with them, and our hearts break with their hearts and the hearts of so many others.
Of the many images seared into my memory from that day, two stand out. The first is the “9/11 Cross” – welded steel beams from the North Tower that stood in the midst of the wreckage following the Tower’s collapse. Frank Sillechia, a worker on the site, discovered the cross and brought it to the attention of others. Soon, those doing the painful work of search, rescue, and recovery began to treat the cross as a shrine, leaving notes, prayers, and other mementos on it or near it. In early October 2001, because the site needed to be cleared, Sillechia and other workers helped move the cross by crane to a pedestal on Church Street. It remained there until October 2005, when it was removed to St. Peter’s Church, which faces the World Trade Center site. It was moved because construction had begun on the new buildings for The World Trade Center site. It remained at St. Peter’s until it became part of the permanent 9/11 Memorial site in July of 2011.
The other image that always touches my soul is of “Victim 0001.” It’s the picture of Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, Chaplain of the New York Fire Department, being carried out of the wreckage of the North Tower by NYPD Lieutenant William Cosgrove, NYFD Firefighters Christian Waugh and Zachary Vause, FDNY EMT Kevin Allen, and former E.S. Army Major John P. Maguire after Fr. Judge had suffered a fatal injury from flying debris in the fall of the South Tower. The photo captures the pain and pathos of the moment. It is an image filled with the pain and pathos of the cross. Many refer to it as the “American Pieta.” He was not the first to die; there were already casualties from the flights and in the buildings. His body was, however, the first brought to the New York Mortuary from the event.
Fr. Judge was a long-time priest at New York’s St. Francis of Assisi Church, near Penn Station. As soon as he heard the news of a plane crashing into the North Tower, he rushed to the scene and was one of the first ones in the tower. Many today remember Fr. Judge as a “living saint.” One tribute to him reports, Judge was “a tornado of comfort, dispensing clothes and dollar bills to the homeless; ministering to AIDS patients; spending hours with those suffering from addiction.”[i] He was part of the recovery community himself, having struggled for many years with his own alcoholism. This, however, equipped him to be an empathetic “wounded healer.”[ii]
Wikipedia writes, “Judge once gave the winter coat off his back to a homeless woman in the street, later saying, ‘She needed it more than me.’ When he anointed a man who was dying of AIDS, the man asked him, ‘Do you think God hates me?’ Judge picked him up, kissed him, and silently rocked him in his arms.” According to Wikipedia, “Judge worked with St. Clare’s hospital, which opened the city’s first AIDS ward, in order to start an active AIDS ministry. He visited hospitals and AIDS patients and their families, presided over many funerals, and counseled other prominent gay Catholics like Brendan Fay and John McNeill. Judge continued to be an advocate for gay rights throughout the rest of his life, marching in pride parades and attending other gay events.”
9/11 was an awful day that robbed us of so many lives. But the stories, memories and witness of those lives live on, stirring our hearts, stirring our imaginations and, in some instances, like that of Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, inspiring our faith and love. In this, love is victorious, as love as always victorious.
May God bless you and keep you,
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes
12th Bishop of New Jersey
[i] Hagerty, Barbara Bradley ”Memories of Sept. 11’s First Reported Casualty Endure” – NPR “All Things Considered” – September 5, 2011 – found at https://www.npr.org/2011/09/05/140154885/memories-of-sept-11s-first-casualty-burn-bright
[ii] The Reference is to the classic work by Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Image Books – Doubleday, 1979).