Unsung Hero Priests of September 11, in the Face of Suffering
The history of Catholicism is permeated with an immense number of stories of holy men and women offering up their lives for Christ and His Church. Suffering is something that is an integral component of Catholicism, although not in a hopeless or morose way. We, as Catholics, believe in the redemptive value of suffering. With the example Christ gave by His ultimate sacrifice of Himself on Calvary, we can come to know suffering as not merely a pointless time of pain or hardship; rather, we can begin to understand that suffering and pain are ways in which we can unite ourselves further to Christ, and so come closer to attaining eternal happiness with Him.
Suffering enters our lives in varying degrees, and we are each called to undergo differing experiences of hardship. Many of us will experience routine and somewhat mundane forms of hardship, such as the daily struggles of caring and providing for a family, working a difficult job, or undergoing physical or mental turmoil. St. Josemaria Escriva wrote in The Way, “Do everything for Love. Thus there will be no little things: everything will be big. Perseverance in little things for Love is heroism." Through an understanding of this concept, we can come to see that the daily struggles that we often undergo are opportunities to unite ourselves to Christ ever more deeply and grow in holiness.
There are many men and women, however, who are called to a greater degree of suffering, and thus it seems to a greater degree of holiness and heroism. We have thousands of examples given by the saints: throughout the history of the world, we see that there have always been people with a ready willingness to sacrifice everything they have for God, even their very lives here on earth. They have responded in an astonishing way to God’s call to prayer and sacrifice, and truly we should model our lives after their heroic example.
It is truly remarkable when men and women lovingly offer up powerful and major actions for Christ and His Church. As we approach September 11, we might be tempted to feel despondent or sorrowful when we think about the terrorist attacks that occurred on that day. Christ calls us, though, to have hope in Him and remain confident in the knowledge of His Kingship. One way in which we can know that goodness perseveres, even in times of trials and tribulations, is by considering the sacrifices made by numerous priests on the day of the terrorist attacks: priests present at the sites offered up their very selves for the sake of their flock, risking (or, in some cases, completely giving up) their lives to serve the faithful. These are especially comforting stories to hear now, as the Church is plagued by scandal and corruption and many Catholics feel let down by men who were supposed to be shepherds. By considering the stories of several priests who witnessed the September 11 attacks, we can understand that Christ remains present in all situations, and there are so many people – especially priests – who are thriving examples of holiness and loving sacrifice.
SERVING SIMPLY: FR. KEVIN MADIGAN
Some of the priests who were present at the September 11 attacks carried out their vocations in simple yet significant ways. One of these priests was Fr. Kevin Madigan. At the time, Fr. Madigan was assigned to St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the oldest church in New York State which happened to be less than one block from the World Trade Center. Fr. Madigan was pastor to a thriving parish there, and it was while he was carrying out his daily pastoral duties that he heard crashing around the site of the Twin Towers. After locating the oils for anointing, Fr. Madigan rushed to begin ministering to those in need. He sadly did not find many in need of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, for the majority of people he found had either died already or were survivors who were racing to leave. He himself was forced to leave the scene as the prospect of the collapse of the towers became a reality.
Fr. Madigan continued to offer his time and pastoral talent in the time following the attacks. Since St. Peter’s was so close to Ground Zero, it became a sanctuary and place of peace for the recovery workers who were tireless in their efforts. Fr. Madigan is a wonderful example of remaining calm in the face of adversity and continuing to pray and serve in a difficult time.
SAINT OF 9/11: FR. MYCHAL JUDGE
It is striking that the very first person to be recognized as an official victim of the attacks was a priest: Fr. Mychal Judge. Fr. Mychal was a 68-year-old priest who had been appointed chaplain of New York City Fire Department in 1992. Throughout his life, Fr. Mychal displayed a Christlike love of his brothers and sisters, showing especial care for those who were shunned by society. He was known in New York City for ministering to many groups of people who were sometimes alienated, including the homeless, recovering alcoholics and immigrants. His ministry to recovering alcoholics was especially personal, since Fr. Mychal himself had struggled with alcoholism in the 1970s. He, however, persevered to overcome his addiction and succeeded in becoming sober by 1978. This was a story he used to encourage and help those struggling with similar addictions.
By the time of the September 11 attacks, Fr. Mychal had been ministering to firemen and their families for nearly twenty years. Throughout that time, he offered support and prayers at fires, rescues and hospitals; he counseled firemen and their families in general; and he was a beloved presence whose hard work did not go unnoticed by those he served. On the day of the attacks, Fr. Mychal rushed to the site, seemingly knowing that the Lord was calling him to great sacrifice that day. After praying over many victims, both living and dead, Fr. Mychal entered the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower, where an emergency command post had been set up. There he continued to lovingly minister to the injured, the suffering and the dying. When the South Tower collapsed, debris struck Fr. Mychal and killed him. His body was carried from the rubble by several firemen and laid before the altar in St. Peter’s Catholic Church – Fr. Madigan’s parish.
Although Fr. Mychal was not the first person to have lost his or her life to the attacks, his was the first body to be taken to the medical examiner, and thus he is known as Victim 0001. His story was widely heard throughout the world, and has been called a “Saint of 9/11” for his Christlike sacrifice for the sake of others. Several thousand people attended his funeral mass, which was presided over by the then-Archbishop of New York, who is now Cardinal Edward Egan. His name is grouped with an number of other first responders and is honored at the National September 11 Memorial.
A PEOPLE’S PRIEST: FR. THOMAS COLUCCI
One of the members of Fr. Mychal’s department, Captain Thomas Colucci, gave his life in a different way. At the time of the September 11 attacks, Colucci was a firefighter and the captain of New York City’s 31st Street firehouse. Hearing of the attacks and ensuing chaos, Colucci rushed to lead his men into the eye of the storm. Colucci and his colleagues began to dig through the rubble, searching for potential survivors and the firefighters who went in to rescue them. The North Tower began to fall, and Colucci saw many of his fellow firefighters struck down and killed. He, and several other firemen, survived the collapse by using a nearby car as a refuge.
Colucci’s close brush with death reminded him of the fragility of life and the importance of living a holy one. Though already a Catholic, he resolved to devote his life to the priesthood and remain a man of God for the rest of his days on earth. So it was that he beautifully transformed his life from one focused on saving people on earth to one focused on saving souls for eternity. Colucci was ordained on May 28, 2016. His years as a firefighter were instrumental in propelling him to answer the call to the priesthood, as he noted around the time of his ordination that he had always been struck by the role of the Catholic priest in a tragedy, and saw the immense hope and consolation they were capable of giving. This sentiment was reflected in the answer he gave when asked what kind of priest he sought to be, as he said, “I only hope and pray I can be a holy, humble and prayerful priest. I want to be a people’s priest.”
NO GREATER LOVE
Thinking about these several priests who were involved in the events of September 11 causes us to recall the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” We see that there were priests who truly gave their everything they had, including their earthly lives, like Fr. Mychal. We also see, though, the beautiful examples of priests who gave their lives in different ways: Fr. Madigan, who persevered in prayerfully fulfilling his pastoral duties in a chaotic time, and Fr. Colucci, who chose to leave his position as a captain in the fire department to become a priest himself. We can learn so much by the examples which they set and resolve to offer our lives to serving the Lord and our brothers and sisters in Christ in whatever ways we can.