At 8:46 this morning, the City paused. Rushing commuters stopped in mid-step; children fell silent in schoolyards; hearts ached; tearful eyes looked south to Lower Manhattan; and the litany of the saints of September Eleventh was read. The City that never sleeps came to a standstill. At 8:46 this morning, all the memories of the terrible events that changed the world, our nation and our City in a twinkling of an eye five years ago came flooding back. As they did, they brought with them the raw emotions of that fateful day: anger, despair, confusion and a gnawing, ominous sense of violation and loss.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Fordham responded with its typical grace. Deeply shaken by the attacks, but uncertain of the extent to which the University community had suffered, the Fordham family gathered in prayer to invoke God’s blessing on our stricken nation and our grieving campus family. There, students, faculty and staff commended the souls of the dead to the loving mercy of God and prayed for those who mourned their deaths. At the end of the prayer services and Eucharists that were held that day, the University community dispersed firm in faith, constant in prayer, and resolved to be gentle in their actions with and toward one another.
The ensuing days proved to be even more draining and exhausting for the Fordham community. The shock produced by the initial reports of the attacks gave way to even deeper grief as the names of the victims were released and the rich details of their lives came to light. The prayerful vigils of some of the members of our community ended in joy, others in sorrow. Through it all, however, the Fordham community remained true to its best angels. Our faculty and staff scrambled their schedules to remain available to counsel students throughout the long days of uncertainty that followed the attacks. Scores of students gave blood to the victims; other students organized drives to collect money, food, flashlights and clothing to assist the rescue efforts. Still others reached out with generous hearts to support friends who were awaiting word about the safety of relatives who worked in the World Trade Center. In the course of the week, then, all of the members of the University community devoted themselves to the works of mercy spoken of in Scripture. In this way, they translated their prayers into action and lived the Jesuit ideal of being men and women for others.
As the days turned into weeks, the nation buried its dead and the University mourned its own. Throughout the ordeal, the University family wrestled over and over again with the same powerful emotions that grip our hearts this afternoon. And, throughout those difficult days and months, the University family remained constant in prayer: prayer for the souls of the dead and those who mourned their passing; prayer for our nation and its leaders; prayer for the heroic rescue workers who continued at great cost to themselves to search for signs of life in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; and prayer for peace between and among all nations. And, throughout the ordeal of those days and weeks, we learned that Mayor Giuliani was right when he said that the final tally would be too much for us to bear.
And yet, it would be wrong for us—quite wrong—to remember only the horrors and terrors of 11 September 2001. In fact, focusing only on the sorrows of that day would do a great injustice to the victims of that tragedy. My sisters and brothers, the victims of the attacks were and are far more than merely victims. In the aftermath of their deaths, they have also become our teachers, our mentors and our patrons. And they have taught us great and important lessons about life, about faith and about love. And, if we but let them to do so, they will continue to be our teachers, our mentors and our patrons from their place in heaven. What do I mean? Before the attacks, to the unsuspecting world, they seemed to be rather ordinary people: wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters whom the world would never take notice of in the normal course of events. As the details of their lives and of their deaths came to light, however, it became clear that the 2,759 men and women who died in the World Trade Center seemed to possess a gift for doing ordinary things with extraordinary grace. They loved life; they took unbounded delight in the lives of their families; and they embraced others with reckless generosity. Following their deaths, they became powerful agents of grace in the lives of all who were fortunate enough to know them. As agents of grace, they have invited us and challenged us to live lives like their own. They have invited us to understand the wonder and miracle of human life. They have challenged us to see life as a gift. They have challenged us to cherish one another and to treat one another with loving respect. They have also challenged us to see each moment as an occasion of grace and an opportunity to—as today’s Gospel story says—do good, and to preserve life. They have challenged us to celebrate God’s goodness in every moment of our lives. In short, they have worked a revolution in the way in which we should see life. In a real way, both by their wonderful, grace-filled lives and in their deaths, they have forced us to see life the way that God intended us to see it. Therefore, I believe that they are saints for our time: patron saints of the ordinary, the everyday events of life. They are therefore, worthy of our love, our respect, even our veneration.
Moreover, they have not left us entirely. As Christians, we believe that they continue to live, and that they may be found at the Eucharist where the communion of saints has always gathered and continues to gather. Therefore, my sisters and brothers, let us run to them in and with our hearts and let us honor them not by reliving the events of that terrible day five years ago, but by living lives that are enriched by the wisdom that they taught us while they were alive, and that they confirmed in the manner of their deaths. But what exactly does that mean? Simply this: let us embrace life and see it as a never-ending occasion of grace. Let us cherish one another, bear with one another and carry one another’s burdens. If we do so, we will truly honor our beloved dead with our hearts, and we will make the legacy of 11 September not one of sorrow but one of transformation and healing. If we do so, we will be men and women after the heart of God himself, who created us for life and who has destined us for a glory beyond all imagining.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
—Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University