When Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago this week, America responded with a “War on Terrorism.” Father George Rutler and many other priests were at the first battle.
Father Rutler, a well-known speaker and author who is a pastor in New York City, knew that when soldiers are about to go into battle, it’s possible for a priest to grant general, conditional absolution. He saw firefighters and police officers headed into the towering infernos in lower Manhattan, in a desperate attempt to save as many people as they could. And he responded to their requests for general absolution.
The Register this week is recalling the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Each day, we are featuring the recollections of an individual Catholic who was there. We invite your own reflections and recollections in the comment boxes.
Father Rutler, host of EWTN’s Christ in the City, remembers “every moment of that day…. It’s printed in one’s mind. I have kind of a total recall.”
He had just been named pastor of the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue but was still at his former Church of St. Agnes by Grand Central Terminal.
“The weather was ethereally beautiful,” he recalled of that late summer Tuesday in New York. “The temperature was mild. A bright blue sky. Such contradiction to all the smoke and the horror.”
He heard a plane that seemed to be flying right over his head and wondered why such a large plane was flying so low. Then he heard the sound from downtown.
As soon as he heard that sound, he literally ran the distance to lower Manhattan, saw the building on fire and went into St. Peter’s church looking for the holy oils. The church, which is just a block away from the trade center, was empty, but he said the impact of the crash had been so great that file cabinets were pushed from the walls and everything was coated with white dust.
Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to the Fire Department of New York, was in one of the Twin Towers ministering to the injured when an object fell on him, killing him. Fireman carried his body into St. Peter’s church.
“The firemen in shock came in with the priest’s body,” Father Rutler recalled. “He was the first officially recorded death. They put his body in front of the altar. It was very moving. There is a picture of the Crucifixion over the altar. I remember blood coming down the altar steps. I shall always remember that scene.”
Scenes of Horror
Next he saw a policeman sitting on the steps of the church weeping. “That reduced everything to a human scale,” he said. “I knew everything was bad, but at that time I didn’t know the scale of it.”
“Firemen were lining up to go into the building, asking for absolution,” he continued. “I was giving general absolution; they were going into a battlefield. One always has these mental images of the firemen going up these staircases and the people coming down.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1483) explains that in the case of grave necessity a general absolution is the recourse. “Grave necessity of this sort can arise when there is imminent danger of death without sufficient time for the priest or priests to hear each penitent’s confession,” it states, referring to Canon 961 of the Code of Canon Law. The faithful must have contrition and the intention of individually confessing in due time each of the grave sins which cannot then be confessed.
“It was almost like being on a Hollywood stage set because it was so surrealistic,” Father Rutler recalled. “It was hard to believe what you were seeing was really happening. In the smoke, twisted metal girders, it looked like one of those World War I films, a definite battle scene. Early in the day I was standing there, and emergency personnel brought a stretcher by and an arm was hanging down. The person was dead. After the priest’s body, that was the first causality I saw.”
He said that “the most horrible thing” was seeing people jumping from the upper floors of the Twin Towers, apparently desperate to escape the heat and flames.
Individual encounters were just as unforgettable. Father Rutler remembers a “young fellow in a FedEx uniform” approaching him. “‘Father, I just got married and my wife is in the building up there. Do you think she’s okay?’ I said I’ll say a prayer and she’ll be alright. As I said that, the building came down. I remember his frozen face.”
Signs of Hope
In 10 years, he has never been able to go back to Ground Zero, although he does keep in touch with many firemen. Ever since 9/11 the bonds have been closer. He’s been made an honorary fireman or chaplain of some fire departments, including the department Houston, Texas.
“New Yorkers are always great in crisis. When going well at each other’s throats, but in crisis they bond together,” he reflected. “As a result of Sept. 11 New Yorkers have been able to come together with a certain empathy. When you live in the city you can easily isolate yourself from people and get priorities wrong, about getting and spending, but Sept. 11 reminded people of their mortality. In our culture we just assume old people die, but it was very radical to have so many funerals after Sept. 11 for so many young people all in their 20s, 30s. That gave lot of people the awareness of human fragility, and people became somewhat more serious after that.”
Father Rutler finds a big difference between this attack and a catastrophe — for instance, people killed in accidents or natural calamities. “This was the consequence of willful evil. Totally unnecessary and gratuitous. That’s what made it more horrible.
“It may have made people more serious in their consideration of evil. How many spiritual fathers have said the devil’s greatest deceit is to persuade us he doesn’t exist? And trying to explain the motivation of people apart from the cooperation with evil doesn’t work.
“In a culture that has been purely utilitarian and falsely optimistic, the denial of evil softened people spiritually and made them naïve. There’s a difference between innocence and naivete just as there’s a difference between hope and optimism.
“We talk about naivete and cynicism, but on Sept. 11 you saw real heroism. In that sense it was a great moment.”
Certainly it was a very life-changing moment in the history of our country and in the city. “New York, we say, is the center of the world, but we realized civilization is very fragile.”
This Sept. 17 will be the 10th anniversary of Father Rutler’s installation as pastor of Our Saviour. That day will also see the 400th wedding since he’s become pastor. Amid the chaos of 9/11, he remembers couples about to be married there asking if they should cancel the wedding — transportation was difficult, people were afraid to come to New York.
Father Rutler’s directive: “I was saying, more than ever we need weddings as a sign of real hope.”
Tomorrow:Beginning marriage amid an atmosphere of fear.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.