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High Anxiety: Faith Faces Anthrax Fears

Pastors comfort frightened flocks

BY John Burger

October 28 - November 3, 2001 Issue | Posted 10/28/01 at 1:00 PM

 

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — As employees evacuating from the 22-story Knights of Columbus headquarters stood on the sidewalk in mid-October, some began to notice that people from the 19th floor, where Supreme Knight Carl Anderson's office is located, were not among them. Some began to speculate that those employees were being tested for anthrax exposure.

It was by then a depressingly familiar scenario. A secretary had opened a letter without a return address and pulled out a folded piece of paper, only to have white powder spill onto her hand and skirt. In this case, the letter was addressed to Supreme Master Nestor Barber, who oversees the Fourth Degree Knights.

Emergency personnel responded to the secretary's call to 911. Those closest to the incident were screened and showered, and the offending powder was sent to a lab in Hartford, the state capital.

“Until you know the results of the tests, there is a little anxiety,” said Jean Migneault, deputy supreme knight. He was in the office Oct. 15, when the incident occurred. Anderson was in Rome for the Synod of Bishops.

The secretary who opened the letter experienced stress over the incident for a couple of days, Migneault said. But tests came back negative for biochemical agents, including anthrax. Employees of the Knights assumed the incident was a prank, as many other incidents around the country appear to be.

“We have to go on with our lives, but be very careful,” Migneault said. “I'm praying this comes to an end — soon. It's getting on people's nerves.”

Americans are on edge, wondering if and when another terrorist attack will occur and what form it might take.

In Boca Raton, Fla., where an employee of American Media Inc., a supermarket tabloid publisher, died of anthrax, reaction in St. Joan of Arc Parish runs the gamut from having “their heads in the sand” about the situation to being “paranoid” about it, said Father John McMahon. St. Joan's is not far from American Media, and some parishioners work for the publisher, the pastor said.

“Like all Americans, we thought we were outside the messiness of human existence,” said Father McMahon. Most parishioners are “following the advice of the leaders of our country in terms of getting on with our lives, but with reasonable concern.”

Father McMahon finds it helps to talk with parishioners about their fears. So does Msgr. Anthony Dalla Villa, pastor of the midtown Manhattan parish of St. Agnes. “People are coming in to speak to priests,” he said. “You let them speak. I just listen. I don't think they're looking for advice, just a way to vent their feelings.”

St. Agnes is down the street from Grand Central Terminal, where tens of thousands of commuters come into the city every day on trains from New York's northern suburbs and transfer to subway lines below. Commuters' anxieties focus on the possibility of a chemical weapon being released in a subway or train station.

The church is also across the street from the 77-floor Chrysler building and a few blocks from the United Nations, both potential targets.

Capuchin Father Francis Gasparik, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish on Manhattan's West Side, near Pennsylvania Railroad Station, also worries about the fear being instilled in the elderly.

Some he has spoken with are afraid to come out of their homes, and that, he says, will lead to social isolation and health problems.

“It's important for religious leaders to send the right signal,” he said. “Our preaching needs to be hope-filled,” and to remind people of faith in a good and loving God.

He felt that kind of faith was second nature for the people who attend an all-night vigil the parish has hosted for some 30 years. The first one after the terrorist attack on the city, Oct. 5, drew its usual 400 people, with most staying throughout the night.

Downtown, near New York City Police headquarters, Blessed Sacrament Father James Hayes said that most of the people he knows are “still trying to recover from the World Trade Center” collapse. That includes members of St. Andrew Parish, where he is pastor, not far from the terror site, and emergency personnel who have been involved in the recovery and cleanup efforts.

The mountain of steel and concrete, permeated with fuel from the two jets that were flown into the towers, was still burning and emitting a foul odor when Father Hayes spoke Oct. 18. And, he said, people are still afraid of other attacks.

For law enforcement personnel, the fear “doesn't debilitate them,” he said. “It motivates them to be on the job, to be vigilant.”

Father Hayes, who said he “got out by the skin of my teeth” when he was ministering to victims on the scene Sept. 11 when the towers collapsed, said he expects the fear and anxiety will be worse six to eight months from now when post-traumatic stress will set in. He saw the same thing happen in the aftermath of the TWA 800 crash off Long Island in 1996. “People will feel terrified at being in tall buildings, they'll abuse alcohol and drugs and engage in aberrant behavior,” he predicted.

One thing that will help ease the stress will be recalling the good reaction of people on Sept. 11, when “one stranger lent a helping hand to another,” he said.

Father McMahon, of Boca Raton, also takes a philosophical view of the matter. “Events are thrown at us, and they shake us out of our complacency and isolation,” he said. “We become more aware of the preciousness of kindness. We become thankful for what God gives us.”

Realizing we are not always in control and realizing our own mortality, he said, makes us “grateful for the day we have. People are more listening, not only with their minds but with their hearts. There's a tendency [normally] to be distracted and to regard things as disposable. We miss the family and relationships around us.”

Prayer is a powerful way to deal with one's anxieties as well, he added.

In Los Angeles, where Mayor James Hahn has asked citizens to ready themselves for a terrorist attack as if they were preparing for a major earthquake, Divine Word Father Walter Miller finds parishioners going about their business and “not terribly frightened,” although the possibility of attacks is “on every-body's minds.”

“I bring it up every Sunday” from the pulpit at Our Lady of Loretto Church, where he is pastor. “I ask, ‘What message can we learn? What's really important in our lives?’”

Father Miller too finds that people want to have the subject of their anxieties expressed in some way and be encouraged to pray about them. When one priest celebrating Mass failed to mention the bombing that began that day in Afghanistan, several parishioners later wanted to know why.

Back in New Haven, the scare at the Knights of Columbus has the fraternal organization processing mail “item by item,” Migneault, the deputy supreme knight, said, so that suspicious envelopes and packages can be placed aside and dealt with separately. “It slows us down a little. We just want our employees to be safe.”

That same concern led to Congress being shut down for five days after a potent form of anthrax was mailed to Sen. Tom Daschle's office last week. The epidemic of powder-laden letters also is spreading thin the resources of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

A panel of Georgetown University experts said Oct. 15 that the threat of biological or chemical attacks, while real, is most effective because it creates a climate of fear rather than because of the potential for harming many people.

Boca Raton's Father McMahon likes to put it all in perspective. Of the millions of pieces of mail received in the country every day, so far, only a few people have contracted anthrax. And, except in the first case, it has been treatable.

Indeed, people in New York “seem to be getting back to normal,” St. Agnes' Msgr. Dalla Villa reported. He credits the daily encouragement of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to “get out there” to live life and go about one's business. “Otherwise, [the terrorists] will take advantage of the fear” they instill, the pastor commented.

And Father Gasparik, pastor of St. John's near Penn Station, said that someone suggested canceling an upcoming parish dance.

“No way,” Father Gasparik responded. “We can't give in to this.”