Never Forget the Heroes

Some phone calls you never forget. Deena Burnett got such a call on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. It came from her husband, Tom Burnett.

When she heard his voice, she sensed something was wrong. Deena asked Tom immediately if he was okay. He replied, “No, I'm not. I'm on an airplane that has been hijacked.” Deena's heart pounded. Tom told his wife the terrorists stabbed a passenger and claimed to have a bomb. He asked her to call the police. Then he hung up.

After Deena called the police and the FBI, Tom called again. He told Deena the stabbed passenger died. She in turn told him about the attacks on the World Trade Center. When Tom heard this, he mumbled to the person beside him, “Oh my God, it's a suicide mission.” He then asked her if the aircrafts were passenger planes. She confirmed what he already suspected. The conversation ended.

Minutes later during a third call, Deena informed Tom that a plane crashed into the Pentagon. He tried to piece together information with Deena to figure out what was happening. Afterward, he hung up.

Seconds later, Tom called his wife for the last time. He started by saying: “They're talking about crashing this plane into the ground. We have to do something. I'm putting a plan together. We're going to take back the plane.”

Deena tried to dissuade him, but he told her, “We can't wait for the authorities. I don't know what they could do anyway. It's up to us. I think we can do it.”

“What do you want me to do?” Deena asked.

“Pray, Deena,” Tom said. “Just pray.” After hanging up the phone, Deena prayed for the strength to accept God's will. We know how the story ends. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed outside of Pittsburgh. But Tom, along with other brave passengers, refused to go down without a fight. Thanks to their courageous action, they stopped the terrorist plan to attack a target in Washington.

The secular media has said much about the heroes of Sept. 11 such as Tom Burnett. Yet there's something very important they haven't noted — that many of the Sept. 11 heroes such as firefighters, policemen and doctors were practicing Catholics.

Perhaps many news editors viewed this piece of information as unrelated to the heroic events of Sept. 11. I disagree. In the case of a practicing Catholic, faith shapes action. Put another way, the Catholic faith offers Christians the strength to practice heroic virtue.

But what does the Catholic faith offer that makes heroes?

Tom Burnett's example as a Catholic answers this question. He lived certain virtues that every Christian should live. Deena saw these virtues in her husband. Tom developed during his life a great love for the holy Mass. He saw the Eucharist as the center of his spiritual life. For him, the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist meant everything.

Deena recalls the day Tom came home and told her he had started attending daily Mass. She admitted, “I was a little bit surprised, but I didn't say anything.”

She remembers her husband telling her, “The reason I've been going to daily Mass is because I feel like if I can be closer to God, then I'll know what his plan is for me.” Tom believed in the power of the Eucharist. In fact, Eucharistic devotion instills Christians with strong moral character.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains why the Eucharist possesses such spiritual power in these terms: “The Eucharist is ‘source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments … are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the Blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch” (No. 1324).

Tom's faith in Christ's presence in the Eucharist matured through his devotion to the Virgin Mary. Tom, like the first Christians, allowed Mary to teach him about Christ. Deena recalls after they got married how Tom looked to Mary as a sure guide to Christ. She remembers especially his devotion to the rosary.

“I've often thought about the prayers he must have said on that airplane, and I think that he was praying to the Virgin Mary,” she said. “I think that his last prayer would have been a Hail Mary.”

Deena said Tom often talked about visiting the great Marian shrines in Europe.

“He was very interested in traveling to those places,” she said. “He had some kind of meeting in France coming up, and he was trying to talk his dad into going with him so that they could visit Lourdes.” In a word, Tom's devotion to Mary sharpened his faith in Christ that proved decisive on Sept. 11.

We all face defining moments in life that demand moral courage. If we face them with Christ and Mary, like Tom Burnett, we will be able to say what passengers said before fighting the terrorists — “Let's roll.”

Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae Institute of Higher Education for consecrated women in Greenville, Rhode Island.