The Catholic Thing
Post-9/11 New York: A Secular City? Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Monday, 12 September 2011

In February 1995, my first month on the job as Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, I was invited to a memorial Mass, observing the anniversary of the February 26, 1993 terrorist bombing of 1 World Trade Center that killed six people, at downtown Manhattan’s St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. 

I was honored to attend both the Mass and the reception that followed for the victim’s families at a Trade Center dining room. Because the Port Authority owned and managed the Twin Towers, I was asked to introduce the then pastor of St. Peter’s Church, Msgr. Robert O’Connell. The monsignor prayed for the repose of the souls of the honored dead and then met and comforted the families that lost loved ones on that horrific day. My P.A. colleagues and I were pleased with the event and no one objected to the priest’s participation.

A year and half later, I found myself at JFK airport, overseeing (for nine days) the emergency services for the family members and loved ones of the 230 passengers and crew of the Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 that went down off the cost of eastern Long Island.

Because it took almost twenty hours for TWA officials to release an accurate flight list, hundreds of distraught people assembled in the ballroom of JFK’s Ramada Hotel were ready to tear down the walls. As tempers flared, I received a call from my friend, John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, who asked if there was anything he could do to help. “Eminence,” I said, “I have a potential riot on my hands, get here as soon as you can.”

The Cardinal offered prayers and then visited every table of grieving people in the room. One large group consisted of the parents and friends of the Montoursville High School French Club students who were on the flight. As it turned out, Montoursville High School was part of the Diocese of Scranton where O’Connor had served as bishop before coming to New York. The spiritual connection the Cardinal made with the kids was the most moving moment of this tragic period.

At a memorial service held at JFK Hanger #12 the Sunday after the accident, Cardinal O’Connor and other religious leaders preached to 2000-plus attendees. New York Governor George Pataki and New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, to whom the bi-state Port Authority reported, insisted that the service be closed to TV cameras and no elected officials address the congregation. 

Father Mychal Judge – who died at Ground Zero on 9/11 while ministering to fallen first responders – served as master of ceremonies and an African-American Baptist choir sang hymns.

I describe these past public events I witnessed to show that all New Yorkers – including elected and appointed officials – once recognized that religious leaders are an integral part of our community. And it was assumed that they would have significant roles in the aftermath of tragic events – even greater than elected officials.

          Fr. Mychal Judge looks out at the crash site of TWA 800 in 1995. He would die on 9/11.

And so it was on 9/11. Hundreds of clergy of every faith answered the call to minister to the victims and their families. Rescue workers brought remains of the dead to a tent on the edge of Ground Zero to be anointed by clergy. Priest friends told me about their heartbreaking twelve-hour shifts in that tent. New York cops and firemen lined outside the makeshift morgue quietly waiting to bring in for a blessing what was often no more than a body part.

Ninety minutes after the twin towers fell, New York’s Archbishop, Edward Cardinal Egan, donned hospital scrubs at downtown’s St. Vincent Hospital and began tending to the injured, anointing the dead, and distributing rosaries. For weeks afterward, the cardinal presided over as many as three funeral masses a day.

The second Sunday after the terrorist attack, the Mayor of New York held a government-sponsored memorial service at Yankee Stadium that included clergy of every faith. The mayor, the police and fire commissioners, and tens of thousand of cops and firemen also attended funeral services for their fallen comrades at churches and synagogues all over the region.

But yesterday, ten years later, at the 9/11 Ground Zero anniversary ceremony led by President Obama and former President Bush, clergy were prohibited from having any public role. One participant who lost a family member, bizarrely defended the decision in the Daily News: “I don’t need to be led in prayer by a spiritual figure, because I will pray on my own in that moment. I need and want a respectful, reverent remembrance of the human beings lost.”

Can anyone imagine invocations by respected members of New York’s religious community not being reverent? I agree with the recent reaction of former Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, who organized the 2001 Yankee Stadium service, “I feel like America has lost its way.”

New York secularists have constructed a political and legal culture in which faith in God just doesn’t matter and are no doubt pleased with themselves. But their success was limited to sixteen acres in lower Manhattan. 
Religious leaders everywhere else kept the faith yesterday. Priests, in every church in New York City I’m sure, recalled the events and many doubtless quoted from Pope John Paul II’s September 12, 2001 address:

The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. 

It’s very sad that the people gathered at ground zero yesterday could not hear such words, which are worth far more than anything our elected secularists will ever say.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter.

© 2011 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Joe, September 12, 2011
My pastor is very close to the history of the Church. He had presented a correlation amoung the Battle of Vienna in 1683, the establishment of the feast of the Holy Name of Mary and the events of September 11, 2001.
written by Manfred, September 12, 2011
You are correct. The Catholic Century in NYC and State have ended. The issue was Same Sex Marriage with Mayor Bloomberg playing a strong role in its passage, going to Albany twice and giving financial support to those who voted for it. Why was he so committed to this project? I know why. Fr.(?) Mychal Judge(?)- Just Google him. Frankly I prefer it this way. The cozy relationship between Cross and Crown led to many evils being allowed to grow. Think of the March 8, 2011 meeting between Cuomo the Catholic and the bishops to discuss funding for Catholic Schools. This was followed in months with his ramming the same-sex marriage bill into law. Now the proper chasm has been created-Caesar on one side and Christ and His Church on the other. I hope the twain never meet again.
written by P.A., September 12, 2011
Manfred, thanks for your comments. I never thought of it that way. I felt very let down and depressed about what has happened but perhaps we had been dancing with the devil for so long we forgot that we stepped on his toes and that there would be payback. Now we can see the enemy in plain sight. The pretense is over.
written by Ray Hunkins, September 12, 2011
Thank you Mr. Marlin, for speaking out on the Mayor's fumble. Shame on him.
written by Ann, September 12, 2011
Whence "in the world but not of the world?"
written by Grump, September 12, 2011
Father Judge was the first confirmed death and had a morgue tag of 00001, it was reported. It seems to me there is a deep symbolism in this that I cannot quite grasp. Although I am a lapsed Catholic, I was profoundly moved when I saw a photo of first responders moving his body. His face had a serenity that continues to be etched in my mind 10 years later.
written by Mike M, September 13, 2011
It's sad what Mayor Bloomberg did to this memorial. No clergy. No firefighters. No police. It's as if he doesn't remember what 9/11 was. Those who worked so hard to tend to the bodies and souls of the people of New York on that horrible day were kept out so that politicians could glad hand on the anniversary of a catastrophe.

9/11 sticks out as a formative event in my life. I was young and it was the first time I really had to grapple with just how horrible and just how wonderfully selfless human beings could be. A little selfishly, perhaps, I couldn't help but feel like this anniversary was also the anniversary of the death of my childhood... and I can't say I'm not angry at how Mayor Bloomberg tarnished the memorial.
written by Robert, September 13, 2011
The politicization and commercialization of this anniversary was grotesque. That said, Clergy of "every faith" must include Islam, to honor the innocent American Muslims that lost their lives in the towers that day. Perhaps if zealots hadn't tried to evangelize 9/11 with cries of treason over the so-called "ground zero mosque," Mayor Bloomberg wouldn't have felt like he was juggling political hand grenades in making this decision. This wasn't a blow for secularization so much as it was a blow for the special interests of a vocal minority, and the weak spines of politicians that bend in the wind of their hot air.
written by MaggieMcC, September 23, 2011
All my five children and three grandchildren went to NYC for 9/11. Needless to say I was frightened at first before I could turn over their safety to our God. They came safely home and were all impressed with the warmth shown them that day by the New Yorkers they encountered. There is still a reverence in their hearts for the tragedy of that day, whatever the mayor tries to turn it into. So may we keep it in our prayers in not in Bloomberg's little secular enclave.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author