The Sept. 11 attack on the Twin Towers changed New York both morally and civilly, says Cardinal Edward Egan.
The archbishop of New York, who coined the term “Ground Hero” to describe Ground Zero of the terrorist attack, told Zenit: “It is a pity that the international press missed, over the past three months of reporting, the most authentic examples of faith and symbols of hope of the people of New York.”
During the Synod of Bishops, you spoke about an examination of conscience on the part of all Americans.
When I was asked if Americans had made an examination of conscience, I answered that undoubtedly they were doing so, but I also said that the real examination of conscience must not only be made in extraordinary cases, such as this one, but should be a constant practice for all men of every nation.
You are relatively new to the archdiocese. You couldn't possibly have expected something like this.
Just a year ago, I was sent by the Pope to lead the New York Church, moving from the peaceful Diocese of Bridgeport to the more complex and multi-ethnic one of New York. I thought it would only be an institutional step that would soon lead me to take on the customs of the big city, given my previous experience in other parts of the world, such as the 20 years spent in Italy. Instead, I never imagined I could have been an eyewitness of that tragedy, which has changed the fortune of thousands of people — a lesson of life that will certainly be impossible to forget.
Eighty days after the disaster, what are your clearest memories?
I saw holiness many times in those days, in the several visits among those ruins, watching the work of our people amid the rubble. Following those tragic events, I have come into contact with many families stricken by the loss of one or more relatives: honest men who worked to take the bread home to their families. Simple, intimate and personal incidents that suffice to give an idea of the sorrow and profound feeling of these people, too often diminished by economic or consumerist descriptions. Just a few days ago I celebrated a memorial for one of the many firefighters who disappeared and were never found. He has left five daughters and two adopted sons, two orphans from Ireland. He lived the normal life of the father of a family who on his own fed five mouths and welcomed two adoptive sons.
Nothing remains of him but ashes — but this doesn't count for those who only wish to talk about Hollywood stars and politicians.
What, then, is the United States like today?
It is another United States that no one ever talks about: We see it in the churches, within the walls of homes, and in the confessionals. They are people who want to continue to hope with the help of prayer. All this can be confirmed by the many priests working in the different churches of New York, on the streets, and in the different communities.
What has this human and pastoral experience changed in you, since you were one of the first to arrive on the scene of the disaster?
My experience during these three endless months is rich in great and small daily actions that constantly bring to mind those indelible hours spent a few meters from the Twin Towers. The chaos was total there. They told me to run to St. Vincent's Hospital to receive the dead. I went and I found myself next to a group of doctors working to save the first wounded. One of them had his father on the 104th floor of one of the towers. I told him to go look for him, but his answer was decisive: “No.” the doctor told me, “I must stay here.” Days later the same doctor wrote me a letter full of feeling and faith, in which he told me that his father was one of the lost, one of the thousands of dead never found.
In this tragedy, you have underlined the birth of a new model of holiness. What is it?
Over this period, I have seen very many examples of holiness. Lay holiness, but with a thrust toward the supernatural. Let's remember that sorrow is the same in all parts of the world. Our people have demonstrated this and are demonstrating it with a human effort that still requires a high price to pay in matters of security. I know, for example, that in many cases there are people who have worked as firefighters but also as workers at Ground Zero. Hence, they are subjected to strict medical control, because of the collateral effects caused by the deadly dust they have inhaled. We do not yet know what awaits us in the future.