NEW YORK (November 12, 2001)—I write these words from the twelfth floor of the Hotel
Pennsylvania in New York City. Emergency vehicle sirens wail in the
streets of Manhattan below my window. It seems that the city is
The television in my hotel room is on. I’m trying to learn more
about the latest crisis to strike this poor city: an airplane—yet
another American Airliner—has crashed into Queens. Over 240
passengers and crew are dead; nobody knows how many are dead on the
ground where Flight 587 apparently exploded and plummeted into a
My wife called a few moments ago. She sounded unusually worried. She wanted to make sure I was all right. Of
course I am, I told her. But my flight is scheduled to fly out in
just a few hours; Newark, La Guardia and JFK are closed. In fact,
all the bridges and tunnels off Manhattan are closed as well. For
the moment, no one is going anywhere.
After these months of hearing about terror in New York, here I am,
sampling just a little of it. It’s a surreal moment. I have no idea
how or when I’ll be able to go home. Ironically, I’m here to speak
at a counter-terrorism conference organized by the Fatima Center.
All weekend, we’ve been talking about how to avoid more terrorist
attacks and how, if the world doesn’t come back to Christ and Our
Lady, we can only expect more of the same.
Why did Flight 587 crash? Was it terrorism? Was it an accident? No
My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by the image of a woman being
interviewed on the television. She lives in the neighborhood where
the jet crashed in Queens. She’s remarkably calm, even though she
thinks her niece was killed by the falling debris.
“What did you see?” asked the television reporter on the scene.
She describes the horrific events. She’s scared, but speaks with
surprising calm and careful consideration.
All at once, she drops a bomb of the wonderful sort. She deviates
from the line of questioning being put to her by the reporter and
goes off on a shockingly Catholic tangent:
What this country—especially this
city—needs to do right now, before another moment passes, is
pray to St. Michael the Archangel. Pray to him, that’s what we
have to do. We have to say, “St. Michael the Archangel, defend
us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and
snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray.”
I could hardly believe my ears. Only in New York—the city that
embodies the worst America has to offer, and, I think there can be
little doubt, the city that also embodies the best that America has
to offer. Here a simple, middle-aged woman—a New Yorker—was getting
across in most dramatic fashion the message that millions in our
country so desperately need to hear. She did it with intensity, it
is true, but also with a kind of happy holiness that left the
reporter unable to break away. It was such a Catholic moment…perhaps
the most Catholic moment I’ve ever seen on television.
Sitting here in my hotel room, listening to the wail of sirens echo
eerily throughout the city, I pray to St. Michael with the little
Catholic lady from Queens. It seems the only thing to do.
All I want to do
on this Monday November 12 is get off Manhattan. But as long as
Newark International remains closed, I can’t do much; I’ve already
discovered that to rent a car from here and drive to Philly or DC
after (and if) the bridges reopen would cost $1.00 per mile (a real
bargain, eh?). So, I can only wait. And as I wait, I can’t help but
recall my strange and wonderful experience from the previous night,
when—almost unbelievably—I found myself kneeling at Ground Zero…at
the very spot where the World Trade Center towers used to
stand…praying the rosary.
It must have been 6:00 in the evening by
the time the Fatima Center’s counter-terrorism conference at the
Hotel Pennsylvania called it quits for the day. Several of us had
already planned to visit Ground Zero, which is just a short distance
from our hotel.
By 6:30, Gerry Matatics, Daniel Matatics, Christopher Ferrara and I
joined native New Yorker Richard Cowden-Guido and a Romanian priest,
Father Linus Dragu Popian, in making the long walk to pay our
respects at the site of city’s wounded heart.
It was a long walk, and a chilly one too. But at last we arrived,
only to find a high fence which could neither be seen through nor
bypassed in any way. It had been erected around the entire perimeter
of the area where the towers once stood; it’s a rather intimidating
barrier. Seems we’d made the long walk for nothing. Police and
military personnel were everywhere, making sure that no one got any
closer to the WTC than that fence.
What to do? I had left my press pass back in the hotel, and, chances
are, it wouldn’t have opened the gate to us anyway: the police were
simply not letting anyone in.
But we did have a priest with us, who was wearing a Roman collar.
Perhaps that’s the ticket.
“Please, Officer,” pleaded Gerry Matatics, “this priest is from
Romania. We’ve come all this way so that we might pray a decade of
the rosary at Ground Zero with him for those who have fallen there.”
This plea would probably have fallen on deaf ears in most cities,
but not in New York. The policemen here have heard much stranger
requests. In any event, Gerry’s pleading had the desired effect.
“Let me check with the Sarge,” said the officer, who looked to be of
Italian descent and was no doubt a Catholic himself.
Moments later, the barricades were—incredibly—being opened with the
expressed permission of the “Sarge,” and the six of us were escorted
by the police to the heart of Ground Zero.
I’m really not sure how to describe what it was like to go to that
horrible place. The smell was terrible, the trucks and machinery
were loud, and the strange light cast by the industrial floodlights
made everything down there seem unreal. One of the towers has a few
bottom floors still standing; the other is nothing but grotesquely
deformed iron and concrete rubble piled up a couple of stories high.
All the buildings immediately around the spot have that look of a
futuristic film about nuclear winter, or some such apocalyptic
disaster. There’s a ghostly quality to empty, bombed-out buildings
in the heart of New York. Just across the street, the Millennium
Hotel still stands, but that’s about all one can say about it. The
same can be said of the Century 21 building—at least it’s still
A few more steps over the powder-and-dust-packed ground and we were
there—right in the epicenter of the site of the worst terrorist
strike in U.S. history. A great crane lifted a huge wrecking ball
high into the night sky and let it drop in an instant on top of the
rubble below. The sound of its impact was sickening, for it made me
think of how deafeningly loud the crashing roar must have been when
these two sky-scraping structures had come down.
A powerful fire hose was spraying water constantly onto the mangled
mass of steel that used to be one of the “two twin girls” (as the
taxi driver had affectionately referred to them on my way into
Manhattan the night before). Two months later, the WTC still burns.
Only a few yards from the center of the place where so many had lost
their lives, we stopped. Our police escort said: “Okay, you stay
here. I’ll step back and let you do whatever you’ve got to do for a
“You don’t have to step away,” rejoined Gerry, ever eager to share a
Catholic moment with a stranger. “You can pray with us.”
The cop smiled, but not mockingly. He just smiled and pointed to the
spot where we wouldn’t be in the way of the trucks.
Quickly, we knelt on the ashen-colored ground and began to pray a
decade of the rosary. The priest, Father Popian, stood in the center
of the five of us and prayed the Ave Maria in Latin, over and over
again. And there amidst death, bulldozers, fire-recovery personnel
and construction crews, we prayed with him. I think all of us asked
God for basically the same thing—please be merciful to them…to the
5,000. Please God, have mercy.
Like a child repeating simple and anything-but-profound words over
and over again, I could only beg God to take them to heaven. It was
so sudden…so unexpected; and they lived in this sinful world where
so many for so long have tried so hard to convince us that God
doesn’t exist or that, even if He does, He doesn’t care what we do;
He doesn’t believe in sin; we don’t need to follow His law, so we
have no need for His forgiveness.
The 5000 dead lived in such a world. Again, God, please be merciful
to them—be merciful to us all. Have mercy.
A sudden crash of the
wrecking ball felt like someone had punched me in the chest. Tears
burned in my eyes, as a frigid breeze whipped along those shattered
streets between those pulverized buildings. The experience was
similar to going along Anzio or Omaha Beaches in Normandy—your
thoughts can think of little else save how many died in this spot.
But here in New York, the bodies are still present, lying torn
and burned and buried somewhere beneath thousands of tons of
unforgiving steel. How many children lost their mothers here? How
many wives lost their husbands? How many families will never be the
same? How many babies will never be born at all because of what
happened here on Manhattan Island on September 11, 2001?
The sight of so much devastation left me speechless. The thought of
so many lives being snuffed out so quickly left me sick at heart.
Whatever we think about the U.S. foreign policy, or the horrific
crime of abortion in America, or the unbridled corruption in our
world—September 11th will still remain a day that will live on in
infamy for a very long time to come. The impossibly twisted steel
wreckage and concrete ruins stands there like a horrific memorial to
man’s inhumanity to man. The crime of abortion doesn’t justify this
madness; will we ever know how many pro-lifers went down with the
5,000 who died here?
Abortion is evil and sick and perverted; the total destruction of
the World Trade Center and the annihilation of thousands of
people—some innocent, some no doubt in the state of mortal sin—was
also evil and sick and perverted. Anybody—be he Christian or
Moslem—who would for any reason celebrate this death and destruction
would have to be, it would seem, equally evil and sick and
perverted. Standing before what’s left of the WTC towers, I thought
to myself: there were no winners here.
These were the unavoidable thoughts that came to mind at Ground
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus
tecum, the priest continued to lead the decade of the rosary
in a loud voice, and we responded. Then he stepped forward and,
raising his hand high over his head, he blessed the rubble that was
once the mighty WTC towers; he blessed the workers, the unseen
bodies that were buried there, and the firemen; he blessed the
policemen, and, finally, he blessed the five Catholic men who knelt
at his feet.
One last look, and then the good cop led us quickly away and back to
the street whence we had entered this ghastly place where so many
had died so quickly and in such a terrified state…and for what?
The Sergeant who had granted us entry to the WTC must have stood six
and a half feet tall. He was a huge man, and an amiable one too. We
all shook his hand and thanked him for his kindness. He smiled a
great big smile and exchanged a few very pleasant words with us. I
had a hunch he too was Catholic, and perhaps it wasn’t only Gerry’s
expert pleading that gained us entry to Ground Zero on this big
man’s watch; no, I have a feeling the rosary moved him too.
Several times before we had gotten his permission that night, we
had mentioned that we wanted to pray the rosary at the spot where so
many had been lost. I think the rosary got us in. With all the death
and terror and destruction inside New York since September 11th,
perhaps the idea of the rosary strikes everyone—even tough and
streetwise cops—as a good idea. It certainly seemed that way to me.
The Sergeant’s reaction reminded me of something I had written in my
last column for The Remnant: I believe that right now is the best
time to bring people back to Christ, back to Truth, back to the
Church. Terror has a way of bringing men back to God; now is the
time for Catholics everywhere to step up their efforts to evangelize
for the old Faith, everywhere they go.
But, alas, few in the Church seem to see it that way. The bishops
are still talking tolerance and diversity and ecumenism at their
insufferably out-of-touch conference meetings; and the Vatican is
planning an international Charismatic conference in Rome…clearly,
they’ve learned little from the events of September 11th. This
prompts me to wonder if, no matter what happens in Afghanistan, the
real war won’t continue to rage on, and terror on our streets will
become nothing short of commonplace in the years to come. The
climate of terror will continue until we as a people learn to listen
to the warnings from heaven.
St. Michael must be working overtime. For
now the talking heads are announcing that Newark is reopening. If I
want to, I can fly out of New York tonight. I’ve never flown on the
same day when there was a major crash of this sort…let alone out of
the very city where that crashed plane is still lying in flames on
the ground below.
But, say what you will about New Yorkers, they are a courageous
people. A little of the Catholicity that used to dominate this city
is still evidenced in the people here—even though the Church has
largely deserted them too over the past forty years.
The New Yorkers’ courage is contagious.
I’ll fly today. I’ll
pray to St. Michael and St. Raphael and St. Gabriel…and I’ll fly
home today. Anyway, we’re not completely safe anywhere in this world
anymore. Death and terror of our own making can occur anywhere…from
the womb, to the streets, to the 82nd floor of the WTC, to the air
far above our cities. No one is safe. No place is safe. Still,
living in fear accomplishes nothing.
As the sirens continue to scream outside my window here in
Manhattan, I sense once again that Utopia is burning. Peace is
behind us for now; the wages of sin are everywhere in the path
ahead. But there’s every reason for hope even still.
Even as the rosary gained us entry last night into Ground Zero, so
too the rosary will remain as our best weapon against terror...all
kinds of terror. I’ll remember that when the thrust of engines
forces me back against my seat tonight, when my own plane takes off
out of Newark. Death strikes without warning; here in New York,
death has become an inescapable and palpable public reality—and let
us remember that as New York goes, so goes the rest of the country.
This thing is, in my opinion, far from over. But if we remain on
heaven’s side, then heaven is on ours. What’s really to fear?
God can help us. Mary can shield us. The rosary can defend us. Our
help (and our hope) is in the Name of the Lord, Who made heaven and
earth…. And, on that note, I’m off to the airport.