NEW YORK — The firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers of Sept. 11 weren't the day's only heroes.
Priests were, too.
World Trade Center command centers put out an urgent call for priests that day. Priests gave general absolution to rescue workers rushing into the buildings. Priests gave the last rites to people falling out of the buildings. Priests were listening to confessions in the streets before the ash blacked everything out. And then, for months afterward, they buried the dead, comforted the troubled and ministered to a profoundly shaken flock.
Then, after the World Trade Center towers fell, the tower of the priesthood came under attack as a result of the sexual-abuse scandals. But if the sins of a tiny percentage of priests have made headlines this year, Sept. 11 tells a different story, a story of how we count on priests in times of trouble and how they don't let us down.
Each Sept. 11 priest the Register spoke with has particular images seared into his memory.
For Father George Baker, it was seeing the second plane hit the World Trade Center and later helping those that had taken refuge in his Manhattan church.
For Father John Delendick, at the site just minutes after the second plane hit, it was seeing people jump from the towers.
And for Father Geno Sylva, it was blessing recovered body parts at the site later that day.
Each will be commemorating the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in a far different way.
At Ground Zero
The images are as clear today for Father George Baker as they were on Sept. 11.
His parish, Our Lady of Victory, sits just three blocks southeast of the World Trade Center complex. Following the 8:20 a.m. Mass that day, Father Baker stepped outside to greet parishioners. That's when he noticed everyone staring toward the World Trade Center. In walking over to get a better look, he saw a gaping hole in the tower with dark smoke pouring out. He returned to the church, removed his vestments, put on his suit jacket and made his way to the Millennium Hilton across from the World Trade Center complex, where a triage center had been set up.
“It was while I was there comforting people that I witnessed the second plane go into the second tower,” Father Baker recalled. “Shock waves went through my body and time seemed to go blank. Suddenly, all of the police and fire personnel started screaming, telling everyone to run in an eastward direction.”
Father Baker ran back to his parish.
There he found approximately 100 people gathered in the church basement — coughing, wheezing, praying and crying. They would remain until they were given clearance to leave by the National Guard later that day.
In the days following Sept. 11, the most difficult thing for Father Baker was observing among parishioners “a belief that God, for a moment in time, had turned his back or stepped away from us. When I began to celebrate public Mass with the congregation again, I looked out on all these people that used to be so attentive and they suddenly looked blank, as if they had been drained of every possible emotion and feeling, as if there was nothing left in them. They were performing the ritual of their faith, but not feeling their belief. They were like sheep without a shepherd.”
It was then that Father Baker realized his parishioners needed something more.
As a result, his parish set up post-traumatic stress disorder discussion groups over the lunch hour.
“Friends or family that lived even 20 blocks away would tell them, ‘It's over. You made it through. You need to move forward,’” he said. “These people needed a way to articulate their pain and hurt. They needed to shout and stomp and cry to express their emotions.”
Since then Father Baker has noticed a more significant increase in the depth of soul-searching with which people come to the sacrament of reconciliation.
“It's an increase in quality, not quantity,” he said. “We've always been blessed with vast numbers of people coming to the sacrament, but now they are coming with very deep reflection on their lives and examining areas where they have strayed and where they can improve their relationship with God or with others.”
Father Baker plans to celebrate a 12:15 Mass on Sept. 11 to commemorate the victims of last year's attacks. He invited Cardinal Edward Egan to be the celebrant and homilist.
“After our Church reopened, we placed a Book of Remembrance in the sanctuary where parishioners could enroll names of those that had perished,” he explained.
“The book has maintained a place of deep respect in our church. During the liturgy, we will place that book and a wreath in front of the altar.”
Working With Youth
Ever since he responded to an emergency call on Sept. 11 to leave his chaplaincy post at a nearby high school to minister at Ground Zero, Father Geno Sylva has been trying to comfort youth, especially those who lost family members.
“Many teens’ presuppositions that life is fair or that everything happens for a reason came tumbling down on Sept. 11,” said Father Sylva, director of DePaul High Catholic High School in Paterson, N.J. “We're trying to try to rebuild teen-agers’ faith in the goodness of people.”
Father Sylva plans to start the new school year with a theme based on Isaiah 43, “I have called you by name.”
This Sept. 11 he plans to gather students and faculty at 8:30 a.m. to remember what they saw a year ago. He wants teachers to discuss with students what is different about what they pictured a year ago to what they remember now.
Then he will play a video in all of the classrooms of children suffering from cystic fibrosis. He hopes to encourage students to rebuild the world and make it a better place.
As part of the school's effort, DePaul High School is partnering with the Passaic County Elks Cerebral Palsy Treatment Center to allow students to minister to children there.
“My hope is that we can change the presuppositions that were lost last September — the things that evil tried to destroy in us last year — and reverse the idea that the world is no good,” Father Sylva said.
He also plans to give each student a medal bearing both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Mother — medals he received while in Turin, Italy, this summer.
“I want to let our students know that these children need to be treated the way that Mary treated Jesus,” he said.
Father John Delendick estimated he has served at hundreds of funeral Masses and memorial services for fallen firefighters during the past year, and the memorials still aren't finished.
“I have three more scheduled in September. Another family is waiting until they get something back,” said Father Delendick, pastor of St. Michael's Catholic Church in Brooklyn and currently one of six chaplains serving the New York City Fire Department.
“We're busy, but it's a different kind of busy,” Father Delendick said. “A year ago, most of our time was spent with families and family-support groups. Now, the time is spent planning for things like memorials and handling problems in the firehouses themselves. What has us worried is that other still-unforeseen problems may crop up.”
While the disaster has drawn some firehouses closer together, Father Delendick said, in others the large number of deaths has contributed to mental-health issues, disagreements and hostilities.
As a result, Father Delendick helped set up counseling units to sponsor weekend getaways for firefighters and their wives. The weekends involve spending a morning and afternoon with a counselor, followed by a date consisting of dinner, a Broadway show and an evening at a New York City hotel.
“Many firefighters spent a lot of time away from home, taking care of other families while they ignored their own,” Father Delendick explained.
He said he will take part in an ecumenical prayer service at fire department headquarters on Sept. 11.
The department will unveil a bronze plaque bearing the names, company and date of death of all 343 men that were lost in the attacks. Families have been invited to attend.
“I'll spend a good part of my day there,” Father Delendick said. In the evening, his parish will host a Mass followed by a candlelight procession to Engine Company 201, a company that lost four men.
Still, the ceremonies are bittersweet.
“Most families are tired and want to get on with their lives,” Father Delendick said. “They're sick of ceremonies. They need time for themselves. During September there will be a lot of different things happening. A lot of fresh wounds will be opened up again.”
Tim Drake is the Culture of Life editor.