Why New Yorkers Turned to the Catholic Church
NEW YORK—Ed Koch felt like his world was literally crumbling down, as the former three-term mayor watched his city's two tallest buildings fall.
People in his law firm, watching the horror on TV, were screaming “Oh my God” throughout the morning. So it struck him: Koch needed God, right away, and he knew where to find him: at St. Patrick's Cathedral—along with 4,000 others who sought solace and spiritual refuge there within hours of the attacks.
Koch, who's Jewish, said the Catholic faith has long served him well in times of trouble.
He said it makes sense that hordes of Catholics, non-Catholics and non-Christians are turning to the Catholic Church in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in history. “Unlike a lot of other religions, Catholicism is not a salad bar,” Koch told the Register. “It's very clear what Catholicism means and what it is about. You either are, or you are not, a practicing Catholic. Those who are not Catholic see this, and they admire it. That's one reason people turn to the Catholic Church at a time like this.
Koch said leadership in the form of carefully-appointed cardinals and other archbishops also leads people to seek the Catholic Church in times of trouble. He explained that good leaders make the Church familiar to people of all faiths. In New York, he said, there has been little doubt about it for decades: The Catholic Church is the foundation for healing in times of trouble.
“In New York, we have always had pre-eminent occupiers in the office of cardinal,” Koch said. “Catholic leaders receive respect because they speak out, and they speak the truth, and this is highly regarded by the public. The Catholic Church also does more social service than any other organization, so in times of crisis, people are accustomed to the Church being there for them. When I had an AIDS crisis in New York, there was nobody I could turn to other than Cardinal O'Connor, Mother Teresa and the Catholic Church.”
Within hours of the attacks, Catholics all over the world began organizing impromptu prayer and rosary sessions. Morning Masses, once attended mostly by a spattering of retirees, were reported packed.
“People have been turning to the Christian faith in general, in the wake of this, but people are turning in droves to the Catholic Church in particular,” said Father William Byrne, pastor of the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland. “I think that's because nonchurched individuals are more likely to turn to the Catholic Church because we're so visible. You can tell who a Catholic priest is by the way he dresses. We have very consistent teachings and are very clear on what we believe. To the unchurched, it fits their idea of what a church should be. It's what they need at a time like this.”
Father Byrne lost a close friend—37-year-old Michael Lunden—who was working as a bond trader on the 105th floor of the North Tower. But he said he hasn't had time to think much about the attacks or let the death of his friend sink in. He said it's because so many Catholics, non-Catholics and non-Christians are coming to him for help. At regular Masses, he has seen a sustained increase in attendance since the attacks of between 25% and 30%.
Father Byrne said other times of crisis have led to conversions and increased attendance at prayer services and Mass. But this, he said, is different because the numbers are much greater and the people are coming back. He said the crisis has softened some of the most defiant nonbelievers like no other event he has seen.
Koch makes a similar observation and said it reminds him of World War II, which he served in amid heavy combat.
“I was there and I saw it,” Koch said. “There were no atheists in foxholes.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.
One Secularist Says She's Spooked
Even some avowed, hard-line, headline-grabbing atheists have toned down their rhetoric in the wake of Sept. 11.
Carla Selby, former president of the wealthy and prominent American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Boulder, Colo., made national news on several occasions in the 1990s for her challenges to public religious expressions. She succeeded in getting crosses removed from fatal car crash sites in Colorado, and caused the removal of angel ornaments placed on pine trees in city-owned forests at Christmastime. Yet in responding to questions about public displays of faith in the wake of Sept. 11—even those involving the president and members of Congress ó Selby speaks of the need for tolerance.
“As a civil libertarian I have concerns about it, of course,” Selby said. “But as a human being I understand it. There are religious people living in this world, and they need God as an answer. At a time like this, I can certainly understand why religion would be in heavy demand.” Although she isn't formally challenging any faith activities inspired by the attacks, Selby said she's concerned that the enhanced role of religion will trouble her cause.
“All of this is going to make it much more difficult for civil libertarians to keep prayer out of schools and out of other public institutions,” Selby said. “Religion is popular now. It's almost as if something so horrible has happened that people have decided they don't care about” modern notions of the separation of church and state.
- September 30 - October 6, 2001