In those first few days at 9/11, do you remember all the talk about missing people? Posters of the missing went up all over the city. Of course — again — there were no survivors. But we didn’t know that then.
There was an article in the paper that said if you’re a family member and you’re looking for someone, you could check lists from all the hospitals. And there was a center set up at the New School, at one of their buildings. On 12th Street, I think it was. I went down there to help people, to counsel them. But there wasn’t a lot to do. The next day, I went back to Chelsea Piers. I was still looking for a way to contribute. And this is where the ministry kind of started.
A police cruiser came up to me. The police officer leaned out and said, “Do you want to go down there?” I was wearing my Roman collar, so I was easy to recognize. I said yes. “Get in,” he said.
I’ll never forget it. We drove from Chelsea Piers. I was in the backseat with a psychiatrist. I think the police officer had just sort of picked him up, too. We drove further and further south. That’s when I started to see how things were.
See, if you were in Manhattan . . . say, near the 40s and 50s . . . you couldn’t really tell something was wrong. I mean, sure, there was less traffic. And there was the smell. Other than that, though, things seemed pretty normal. But then we kept driving down past 14th Street. And you started to see, like . . . ash. We kept going south, and I saw fires burning all over the place. This was on September 13. We pulled right up to the site. I got out. The psychiatrist said, “Good luck.” The car drove away.
I was by myself at the Pile.
It was really overwhelming, like a scene from a war movie. Terrifying. The scale of it. These huge jagged remains of the building. And it was still on fire, still smoking. Other buildings nearby were still burning, too. And the smell was . . . well. You knew you were standing next to a grave.
I saw hundreds of uniformed personnel from every possible agency. Like an alphabet soup of initials: OSHA and CIA and FBI and army people. Policemen and firemen. This was before any sort of order had been imposed on the place. In a few weeks or a few days, maybe, there would be fences. But I just walked right in. Back then, even the term “Ground Zero” was new.
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I remember looking around and wondering what I could possibly do. And here I thank my Jesuit training. Because, I thought, I cannot work in the morgue. I just didn’t think I was capable of doing that. But I thought that at least I could minister to the rescue workers. So that’s what I started to do.
When I say minister, I mean trying to help them. You listen to them. “How are you?” That sort of thing. Most of this is what we call a ministry of presence. In the same way as if you were a firehouse chaplain or a police chaplain, you help people to find God where they are. To know God’s present among them.
But you know what was funny? The people I met were more solicitous of me. I kept hearing, “How are you doing, Father? Are you okay? Is this difficult for you?” It was so generous.
Everyone I saw was so other-directed. Other-centered. This was evidenced by their already being down there. I found it very moving.
So that’s what I did for a couple of weeks. I was walking around, ministering, helping people. By that point, we knew there were no survivors. It was just rescue workers. Then I brought other Jesuits down and we celebrated Mass there, which was incredible.
I wrote about this in my book “Searching for God at Ground Zero.” Which, actually has reminiscences that are probably more accurate. Because, you know, it was 20 years ago.
Which I still can’t believe. I just can’t believe it.
My experience of Ground Zero was one where the Holy Spirit was present. It was a place of generosity and love, community and union. Charity, concord, and service.
There were all these people working for others. And remember, you had people coming from all over the country. In those early days, anyone would come in. Firefighters, sure, but also . . . there were these women from the Midwest who’d set up a candy stand. I’ll never forget that.
So while, for many, Ground Zero was a place of Good Friday — the suffering, dying and burial of Christ — I saw a different aspect. I saw it as a place of Easter Sunday. Because there was a sense of new life there. Both these things present at the same site.
What do I mean by the term “Holy Spirit?” I mean God’s presence. An active presence. And that’s important. Because you could say that God’s presence is everywhere, the idea that God’s spirit pervades the world as a sort of benign presence. But I believe God’s Spirit impelled those people to listen to their conscience. “Go and help,” it said. And they listened. That’s the active spirit I’m talking about. This sense of the Holy Spirit drawing people together.
I’ll never forget this. One day, there was sort of like a tourist boat docked at the river nearby. This was on a Sunday. And there was a ton of food down at the site because, if you remember, restaurants were donating all this food. And a lot of people working at the site would go and eat their meals on this boat.
So this Sunday, I was there. We had celebrated Mass outside. Like I said, an interesting, very moving experience. And after Mass it was lunchtime, so my fellow Jesuits and I lined up to go on this boat.
It had two floors, as I recall. Two levels for dining. And when I walked on, I saw this scene of, if you can imagine, nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, CIA, FBI, volunteers. Everyone eating together. And all I could think of was the Eucharist, the heavenly banquet. This beautiful image of everyone breaking bread together, which is a very Christian image. An image of unity and togetherness. For me, it was another experience of the Holy Spirit.
But get this. After I’d eaten, I got off the boat and looked back. What’s the boat called? The Spirit Boat. Written on the side in big letters.
The Spirit Boat.
And I thought, well, of course.