The Big Apple's Big Heart

It's a long way from County Clare, Ireland, to Manhattan. The distance seemed even greater after Sept. 11.

A few days after the terrorist attacks, Legionary of Christ Father Eamon Kelly, an Irish priest stationed in New York, told Register correspondent Edward Mulholland what it was like to minister to New Yorkers in those first days.

Have people been anxious to talk to a priest after the tragedy?

These last few days, as I walked the familiar but now eerie Manhattan streets, my first question with each person I met is “Have you lost someone?” Very few people were looking for me or wanting to talk. All seemed numbed by shock and sadness. I always had to take the initiative and only in two cases was there strong reluctance, which, of course, I respected.

After hearing some details about their brother or in-law or friend or colleague at work and sharing in their sorrow and helplessness, I tried to sense their religious affiliation and attempt a prayer. A few spoke a prayer from their own heart. Sometimes I concluded offering them a blessing, which was most readily and gratefully received. All were so filled with deep gratitude as we parted.

Is there a sense of doom in New Yorkers?

New York is responding marvelously. On Wednesday night, Sept. 12, when I was finishing up hours at the Bereavement Center on 29th at First Avenue and was speaking with a young German reporter inside the main entrance door—which I was continually opening for police, volunteers, etc.—a wheelchair came in and the quadriplegic man, whose warped and twisted body called for pity, tried to mumble his wish.

After stooping down to him and asking him to repeat his wish four times, I understood that he wanted to give blood. After directing him to the hospital next door, the policemen and reporter were deeply moved when I explained this to them.

This case is symbolic of all the New Yorkers who are giving all they have to help those in need.

I suggested to the reporter that New York now be called the Big Heart, and not just the Big Apple. There is an extraordinary sense of family. We thank you, Lord, for this great gift of love to your people.

But it must be difficult all the same.

An almost unbearable weight of sorrow hangs over many hearts. A 90-year-old father mourns his 60-year-old son; a terminally ill mother mourns her 27-year-old firefighter son while a surviving uncle hastens to make the funeral arrangements. Brothers and sisters are missing. One parish has lost 42 people, many of whom are young parents. Thirty parents are missing from one school.

There is incredible hurt; but more amazingly, among those with whom I have spoken, a mature forgiveness and lack of will to revenge.

Justice must be served, but the people whom I met were not vengeful. I have not heard a single direct victim speak in terms of revenge. Rarely have I seen such an outburst of love of country combined with such capacity to absorb an unspeakable blow. Anger may surface more as time goes on.

In addition to love of country, are more people returning to a love of religion?

Some people were a little hostile to prayer. Most were deeply grateful for having been approached and expressed that in a prolonged and firm handshake and teary eyes. I have prayed with Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, born-again Christian, Jews, Muslims and even vague believers. ... People spoke moving prayers for God's blessings and none for revenge. Let's pray that universal brotherhood will be advanced and not further damaged in the aftermath.

The prospect that many bodies will not be found will also deprive many of the healing that comes from saying goodbye. Let's pray for them that they will find peace in other ways.

What is the attitude you find among survivors?

A young businessman, whom I know, ran his companies from the 79th and on some lower floors of the World Trade Center. Three of his brothers work with him. The plane hit very close to them, but all the company employees were outside of the building that morning. He plans a Mass of Thanksgiving.

There are those who feel “guilty”; for example, a brother and sister from out of town who talked their brother into taking a job in the towers a month ago; managers who were not there and who might have ordered their staff out immediately as some did. They, too, need our prayers so they may attain peace of heart for results far from their intent and control.

Many feel the call to come closer to God, to take all we have less for granted, to “renew” their connection with God and the Church, to come back to the sacraments, Sunday Mass, reconciliation after many years away.

What should Catholics be praying for?

We pray especially for all those responsible for the security of all the innocent people on this earth. Lord, guide our leaders in their decisions, in response to this tragedy, to do justice, provide for our safety and impede recurrence. We pray that the solemn bonds of trust, which sustain a free society, will never again be so brutally abused. We ask Our Lord: Give us your strength to transform our lives and the whole world.

As someone who came to live here two years ago, and having been exposed in various countries to the attitudes people often have toward Americans or within the United States toward New Yorkers, I find these days the American people and New Yorkers, in particular, have shone in a greatness which I feel bound to share with all peoples I meet. May God continue to bless America.

Edward Mulholland writes from Carmel, New York.