Back at the parish office, my colleague told me that he had just heard that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers.” I went to check the news on TV. By then, a second plane had crashed into the other tower, and I watched in horror as each of the towers collapsed. It quickly became a day like no other. The primary voting was cancelled, as the entire city shut down. Even the Starbucks on the corner closed, as police barricaded our street. For days the acrid smell from the burned buildings and their contents hovered in the air, penetrating everything. For weeks, we were a city in mourning, as one funeral after another was celebrated – many of them nearby at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. At. Saint Paul’s, we celebrated with special sadness the funeral of one of our beloved choir members, a member of the flight crew on the hijacked United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, that following Friday, in observance of a presidentially proclaimed national day of mourning, over 1000 people attended the noon Mass at Saint Paul’s. September 11 is still remembered annually at the Paulist Mother Church with special ringing of bells at 8:46, 9:03, 9:37, and 10:07 – recalling the exact times when the four planes crashed into the Twin Towers, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania.
When we remember September 11, 2001, we remember a day of personal and communal tragedy, and also of courage and commitment, heroism and generosity - people at their worst and people at their best.
In the aftermath of that sad September 11, however, our country has changed in curiously complex ways – not necessarily all for the better. It seems to me that we have become a much more fearful people. We are increasingly conscious of enemies and naturally seek to maximize our safety. But there is also something else about the fearful people we have become, something in certain respects very much out of character with the best and most preponderant American traditions. And this has happened precisely at a time when the new and complex challenges of a rapidly changing society and a new order of world affairs may require us to relearn some of the most important lessons of our American experience and recover our most deeply rooted spiritual and religious traditions - as a much needed alternative to fear.