National Catholic Register


After the Attack, Friars Hope to Rescue Respect for Life

BY John Burger

September 23-29, 2001 Issue | Posted 9/23/01 at 1:00 AM


NEW YORK — Brother Agostino Torres of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal was dressed in his distinctive gray habit, a rope cincture and long set of rosary beads at his waist. In front of him was a weary iron-worker who took a few minutes from the rescue efforts in a pile of steel and concrete that was the World Trade Center twin towers.

“How can people do this and say it was [the will of] God?” the man asked, referring to the militant Muslim belief of the terrorists. “I have so much anger, but I know I have to lay it down before I go to the altar.”

Standing in the midst of what he called an “unreal” atmosphere, with dust continuing to float to earth and cars blown to pieces or incinerated, Brother Agostino wasn't sure what to tell him.

“I talked about how this has to change our hearts for the better,” the 25-year-old ethnically Mexican friar from South Texas said. “I told him, ‘You have a really good heart; you care for the people. We have to raise the next generation so that something like this won't be repeated.’”

Brother Agostino, who knelt in prayer with the ironworker, said later, “We have to have true love in our hearts. We have to teach our children how to forgive. A lot of people are reacting to this in a very angry way. We don't know how to forgive.”

It was a day after the twin towers collapsed, and several of the Bronx-based friars, a group that was formed by Father Benedict Groeschel and several other Capuchins, were on the scene at “Ground Zero” to offer a prayerful presence and pastoral assistance to anyone who requested it.

They went from 7 World Trade Center to a makeshift morgue inside an 18-wheeler to the streets again, handing out rosary beads and offering comfort to those who needed it.

By the third day, the only way they could get below Manhattan's 14th Street was on a special bus with members of the New York City Fire Department. The community, which has two friaries next to a firehouse and a police station in the South Bronx, has good relations with those civil servants, many of whom are Catholic.

Brother Agostino spoke to the Register Sept. 13, the third day of the tragedy, waiting for a bus to return to the scene.

The firehouse and police station were staging areas for extra emergency personnel coming from other cities, and as they lined up to go downtown the first day, Father Robert Lombardo, who directs a homeless shelter in the South Bronx, gave them General Absolution. Since the tragedy struck, the friars have been tending the pastoral needs of rescue workers.

Anti-Muslim Sentiment

But the friars were not welcomed everywhere on the streets of New York.

Many of them wear beards, and a few have dark complexions and features that could be mistaken for Middle Eastern.

Shuttling between their friaries and the sites where they offered their assistance in the first few days of the tragedy, some received threats because they were mistaken for Muslims. A young man who was apparently a member of the “Five Percenters,” an organization that believes that blacks will one day be the masters and whites will be slaves, reversing history's fortunes, told Brother Damiano Vaissaide, “If I had a gun I would kill you.” Brother Damiano, a registered nurse from California, served on a medical team at the Trade Center.

On their way home, several friars got off a bus in a heavily drug-infested section of Harlem, near their friary. Some men on the corner asked if they were Muslim and warned, “Don't go down this street. You won't make it through” alive.

Another person shouted at them, “There will be blood running in the streets.”

Father Glenn Sudano, superior of the community of some 70 friars, and Father Conrad Osterhout, its novice master, worry that too many Americans will become vengeful in response to the terrorism. “We need to pray that we will not make a response that is so hateful, although we have to bring [the perpetrators] to justice,” Father Conrad said in the days following the attack. The Bush administration had not finalized America's response to the terrorism.

He said that President Bush's first few speeches after the terrorist acts have a “certain sense of peace” about them, “not imbued with retaliation, but with responsible authority and accountability.

“It's more of a moral response,” he said. “It has the tone of a moral authority, and that we appeal to that, that there is something higher than ourselves. He's got that substance behind him.”

The nation needs to respond in kind, Father Conrad added.

A Purification

In the wake of the bombing, Father Conrad said that America's disregard for the sanctity of life has made the nation ill-prepared to respond morally to the terrorist attack.

Americans might be too thirsty for blood — any blood — after the attack. “What's disturbing is our willingness to let go of our moral fiber,” said the priest. “It allows for impatience and a lack of generosity and lack of trust. So people are persuaded by ideas with no moral foundation.”

He pointed to well-financed, politically protected forces promoting a “culture of death” that disregards the sanctity of human life and a tiny, underfunded minority promot ing the values of the culture of life.

“We pay a price for speaking up for those values,” said Father Conrad, who once spent a year in prison for protesting at abortion clinics. “But we're only the tip of the iceberg.” The rest of the iceberg includes loss of the family fiber, the family as the foundation of society and the good and true culture that Pope John Paul has emphasized must be at the heart of every society.

Judie Brown, the director of the American Life League in Virginia, agreed.

“First of all, we have to be incredibly sad for all those who lost loved ones in this tragedy,” she said. “From a pro-life perspective, I have to wonder why don't we see these babies as human beings attacked by draconian methods and killed in the process. I hope we reevaluate how we view our fellow human beings.”

She added: “If this awakens a sense of the value of life of everyone of us, then something good will come of it.”

Father Conrad feels it necessary to counter the contempt for Arabs, as well as some people's feelings that religion in general is responsible for last week's violence, with a message of hope, represented best by Pope John Paul II.

The Pope said in his Wednesday audience the day after the attack, “Christ's word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say.”

Yet the nation faces a “harsh trial,” even a purification, Father Conrad said. But for those who are faithful, it will lead to a “flowering of faith” and deepening of values.

“This is a grace-filled time to convert hearts deeper to Christ,” said Brother Agostino. “I pray that it will be a time of conversion, not revenge or hatred. We can get carried away by a feeling of ‘Let's bomb them,’ but it's up to every Christian to stand up for a higher way of living.”

John Burger writes from New York.