Traditionalists At Ground Zero

Michael J. Matt
EDITOR, The Remnant

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 crying again.

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 residential neighborhood.

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 one knows.

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.

Ground Zero

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 standing.

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 few moments.”

“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 Zero.

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.