The Meaning of the Cross at Ground Zero

As I reflect on the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, I must say this: "We saw evil at its worst and goodness at its best."

It was the worst attack on the U.S. mainland in our nation's history, and many died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. Yet the attacks unified New Yorkers and Americans throughout the country. Indeed, many New Yorkers were greatly comforted by the huge outpouring of support from across the nation in the form of volunteers, supplies, food and letters of loving solidarity.

I celebrated most of the Sunday Masses at Ground Zero — on a few occasions, fellow Franciscan Father Chris Keenan filled in when necessary. I can say that the generous support from Americans far from the city made all the difference to the families of the dead, the survivors and those who worked and served there.

Mass at Ground Zero

The first Mass at Ground Zero was held on Sept. 23, 2001, close to a New York Police Department communication command post on Vesey Street near West Street, which was the northwestern sector of the World Trade Center site. Mass was also celebrated on Sept. 30. The majority of the 75 participants were NYPD, FDNY or union construction workers. I celebrated both Masses. (I celebrated most of the Sunday Masses at Ground Zero.)

Through the intervention of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the famous Ground Zero cross was erected and blessed on a concrete abutment on Oct. 4, 2001. An informal council of uniformed service personnel and construction leaders agreed that the 10:30am Sunday Mass would begin at the cross' new site, located in the same northwestern sector, but about 75 yards closer to the WTC site from the NYPD communication center.

I suggested 10:30am for Mass to honor the time that the Second Tower collapsed on Sept. 11. This was sacred ground, and we honored sacred time.

The first Mass by the World Trade Center cross was on Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001. The Rosary was recited for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary to pray for the dead and sustain the living who worked and served at Ground Zero.

The majority of those who came to Sunday Mass during the month of October were recovery workers and uniformed personnel — about 100 each Sunday.

During the month of November, when the weather was still mild and the demolition effort was going amazingly fast, select family members of 9/11 victims and volunteers from the Salvation Army were permitted to attend the Mass. Weekly attendance grew to an average of 150 people.

Memorable Masses

Some of the more poignant Masses: On Sunday, Nov. 11, a group of Veterans of Foreign Wars participated in the Mass and reminded all of us that this 9/11 attack was an act of war on the United States.

Christmas Eve was the coldest night recorded during the 10-month recovery period at Ground Zero. Nevertheless, more than 150 worshippers came for midnight Mass. We sang Christmas carols and prayed for all who died on 9/11. One hour before the Mass, a firefighter's body was recovered, and I joined the Honor Guard from the pit to the top road to accompany the body to be transported by a FDNY fire truck. The Honor Guard participated in the Mass as tears streamed from their eyes in memory of their fallen brothers.

On Christmas morning, it was not as cold as the previous evening, though it was still raw outside. Yet comfort was provided by the gathering of 200 recovery workers, uniform personnel and family members.

Thankfully, the weather was relatively mild for the months of January and February 2002. As a result, the demolition effort was stepped up. West Street was finally cleared and allowed traffic to flow to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and Lower Manhattan for the first time since Sept. 11.

The last major liturgical celebration at that site was a huge Ash Wednesday Mass in early February 2002. More than 200 people received ashes and Communion. I noted the symbolism between the tradition of Ash Wednesday and Ground Zero, where hundreds of people were literally burned into ashes. The solemnity of that day was deeply profound and meaningful.

Because of the rapid rate of the recovery operation, the cross was relocated from West and Vesey Streets to Church and Cortland Streets, approximately the north-central sector of Ground Zero.

The relocation took place on St. Valentine's Day 2002, a date chosen to honor the construction workers' labor of love for erecting the cross twice at no charge with their donated time and materials.

Three out of the four people who died on Sept. 11 were Christians, with the majority being Irish Roman Catholic. Thus on Sunday, March 17, 2002 — St. Patrick's Day — it was fitting that the Sword and Light Pipe and Drum Band of the Catholic Council of the Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who lost 17 members on 9/11, marched in with bagpipes, drums and the Irish and U.S. flags. They serenaded the worshippers with Irish songs and hymns.
Holy Week at Ground Zero was the most memorable one in my priestly life. It began with a joyous, Palm Sunday procession in late March and continued with a Holy Thursday Mass in which each participant washed the foot of each other as a sign of sanctified service.

On Good Friday, 250 people participated in the 14 Stations of the Cross around Ground Zero. At the 15th Station — the Resurrection — we ended with the distribution of holy Communion.

It rained on Easter Sunday, but many people attended Mass and brought flowers to the site. The homily and a theological discussion after the Mass focused on the Resurrection: Is there really eternal life after death? Many, many valuable insights were shared that Easter Sunday morning. Despite the horror of 9/11, we rejoiced in the gift of eternal life.

One of the most powerful Masses I ever experienced was not planned or even anticipated. Sunday, May 12, was Mother's Day, and we expected a great number of mothers who lost loved ones on 9/11 — husbands, children, siblings, etc. to participate in the Mass. During the homily, unexpectedly, two units of U.S. Special Forces soldiers joined in the Mass. One unit just came back from a tour in Afghanistan; the other was about to be dispatched there. During the sign of peace, I asked all the mothers to first embrace those coming back from their first experience of war and then the second unit who would experience war for the first time due to 9/11.

It was one of the most emotionally charged, cathartic signs of peace I ever experienced as a friar-priest.

Closure and Forgiveness

June 2 was supposed to be the last Mass at Ground Zero. More than 400 hundred people attended, including Mayor Giuliani, many family members, uniform personnel and recovery workers. It was a sad but joyous occasion.

Two days before Father's Day, on June 16, members of the New York Fire Department and family members called me about having the last Mass on Father's Day. Many fathers who lost loved ones — wives, children, siblings — and others stood by the cross and received blessings and comfort from many of the 120 people at the last Mass.

We all emphasized the words of the Our Father: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

As Catholic Christians, can we abide by the words of Jesus in this powerful prayer? As the 10th anniversary is observed, I pray that we can all learn to forgive the attackers, but never forget those brave souls who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Amen.

Franciscan Father Brian Jordan served as the chaplain at Ground Zero from September 2001-June 2002.