Post-9/11 New York: A Secular City?

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

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. Parts of this essay are excerpted from his forthcoming book to be published on October 23, Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.