This weekend marks 20 years since the world watched in horror as multiple terrorist attacks took place in the United States of America on 11 September, 2001. Close to 3,000 lives were claimed that day, with thousands more lost and millions displaced in the protracted conflicts that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The events of 9/11 have become etched in the minds of many the world over.

For Melbourne Catholic Joe Doolan, who was living in New York at the time with his wife, he remembers the day vividly and their frantic rush to reassure those back home of their safety. But, Joe says, what has remained with him the most is the Eucharistic celebration that took place a few weeks later at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. Twenty years on, he shared the following reflection.

Twin towers 1970s
The iconic twin towers of downtown Manhattan, NY (circa 1970s) Unsplash

A Blessing Prayer

The 1989 Blessing of an Altar* included a beautiful prayer that the People of God may cast upon this Altar of Joy their burdens and cares and take up the journey renewed. A concise description of Sunday Mass.

We bring each week to the Eucharistic celebration our bag of burdens and offer them to our loving Father. For many of these Masses we bring our usual suspects and weekly cares but there are times, like what we are now living through, when our world and personal history is condensed and our needs become harshly real. At these times we take our place beside a suffering humanity and seek out this “Table of Joy” for the healing and transforming grace it brings.

A Tuesday in New York

In recalling the events of 9/11, which my wife and I faced in Manhattan, our most powerful memory was not what we encountered on that fateful Tuesday of 2001. There was nothing of note in the newspapers that morning: mayoral election booths in local schools; a fashion comment for young people formed The New York Times headlines. I still have that paper. Seventeen million people, ourselves included, began a normal day in this bustling city – until the planes struck.

The story of our day included anxious attempts to reunite in a city devoid of all transport, reassuring phone calls to loved ones in Australia and sharing a stunned disbelief with our colleagues. The late afternoon walk back to our apartment had us fearful that another multistorey building, or even ours, might collapse that day.

However, the most engaging memory of that time was forged weeks later.

New York FD

Mass for the Victims: St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City

The Memorial Mass for those who died in the twin towers was celebrated several weeks later on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Though we lined up hours early to secure some seats, our efforts failed for the Cathedral was almost fully reserved for dignitaries and diplomatic guests. Our place in the entrance line stopped at the front steps and there we sat, in lockout, and waited for the Mass to commence with thousands of others lining Fifth Avenue.

This Eucharistic celebration of the crucified Lord of Glory was heard by loudspeaker. Little did we know that this street would be the setting for an extraordinary spiritual event of healing and life-giving love.

Whilst waiting in the sunshine we greeted and exchanged stories with others in the step-sitting assembly that God had gathered. An El Salvadorian family was grieving a son who died in the twin towers; they gave us a small American flag – an early sign of peace before Mass began. Already we sensed God’s gifted circle of love.

The gathering song united us as we sang from shared Mass booklets. The Liturgy of the Word with its homily and intercessions was fitting in selection and theme, but nothing sharply focused my attention.

St Patrick’s Cathedral New York
St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York Joseph Barrientos (Unsplash)

The Eucharistic Prayer

It was not until the movement from the Table of Word to the Table of Praise and Thanksgiving that my consciousness sharpened and the great prayer of praise to the Father began.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you. / And with your spirit.

At different key words in this Eucharistic Prayer, I was drawn to thoughts of the awful event:

Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy ...

We send up our prayers to the Father and ask that the Holy Spirit come down upon Bread and Wine, upon ourselves, and also upon those who died.

This is my body which will be given up for you ...

The office workers trapped in towers, commuters on captured planes, first responders and Catholic chaplains attending the site.

This is the cup of my blood ... it will be shed for you ...

Here I focused on a clear image: fire fighters climbing the stairs of a building that was crashing down upon them.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

So many had died.

In memory of his death and resurrection …

In memory (anamnesis) we pray that the Father will act, here and now, in this community with the same power seen at Christ’s resurrection. Father, do here again for us, what you did for your Son.

I paused to pray with the Celebrant a special pin-drop word of the Mass: offer. At this moment I would cast upon the Altar the great burdens and cares of this tragic event and fervently pray for those who offered their lives that day.

At that moment an extraordinary thing happened. The presiding Cardinal commenced this prayer of offering but his voice was drowned out by an unexpected uproar.

From several blocks north came the sound of loud clapping that was slowly building and growing to a mighty ovation of exuberant shouting and cheering. The assembly on the pavement, in their thousands, was on its feet, united in extended, thunderous praise.

The logic of the Father was timed to perfection:

A brand new,
bright red,
fire engine
stopped in front of us.

The many firemen atop the vehicle smiled, waved and called to us returning our cheers and sharing our tears. Our consciousness was flooded with the all-loving presence of God sharing our suffering.

It was a transcendent moment of power, cosmic in proportion: heaven had opened up.

Jesus St Patricks Cathedral NYC
Sculpture of the Risen Christ in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York Fr Lawrence Lew OP

The Healing Power of God

That Mass continues to arrest my attention and strengthen my trust in God’s providence for all. I knew that the Father’s house has many dwellings, eras and designs but I had not seen it so powerfully presented on a pavement in a busy place as it was that day in 2001. The graces received from that Eucharistic table enabled us once again to forge ahead; the tragedy of the Cross was subsumed into a new possibility for life.

Difficult times, like these lockdown days we face, challenge our faith and stretch our spiritual engagement with God. But we have faith in Christ who has taken up our burdens and cares and walks with us on a journey renewed.

*Taken from the Blessing of an Altar in Rite of Dedication of a Church and Altar (1989). In 2014 a new Blessing of an Altar was published.