By Father Bruce Nieli, C.S.P.
I was recruited to bless the bodies of victims recovered from a buried stairwell in the aftermath of the horrific tragedy of September 11, 2001. My "recruitment" was purely the work of the Holy Spirit, since I was simply in New York City on the eve of a flight to Greece and Turkey for a pilgrimage I was to lead "in the footsteps of Saint Paul."
I found myself at St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan, which was the home of Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the heroic chaplain of the New York City Fire Department who gave his life on 9-11. It was there that I felt the call to go to Ground Zero, where I was directed to get a hard hat and mask and help out in that apocalyptic setting. The Fire Department, so largely Catholic, needed a priest.
I was ordained in 1973, the very year that the Twin Towers went up. To see them come down was like seeing a part of my life come down. My heart was filled with intense anger at the terrorists. Yet the words that came out of my mouth as I blessed my first body with Mayor Giuliani and other ministers present expressed just the opposite sentiment: "Lord, make us all instruments of your peace; where there is hatred, let us sow love ..."
The Holy Spirit, I'm certain through the intercession of St. Francis and Father Judge, turned my bitterness into forgiveness.
How in awe I was seeing the crowds along the New York streets praying and saluting as we wheeled the American flag-draped bodies to the makeshift morgue. It was to see firsthand an America united.
At Ground Zero two fellow ministers pointed out two things I will never forget. The rector of St. Paul's Chapel at the base of Ground Zero, mentioned that one of the earliest paintings of the great seal of the United States, directly over George Washington's pew, with America's original motto, "e pluribus unum" ("out of many, one"), written on the ribbon carried by the bald eagle, was intact. Miraculously, it was not destroyed by the implosions of the Twin Towers. The other was the cross at Ground Zero that the Peace Officer Ministries had helped to plant as a reminder of Christ's presence in the depths of tragedy.
Since my sojourn at Ground Zero I have focused my preaching and mission on connecting through the power of the Holy Spirit the cross of Christ, so central to our Catholic faith, with the culture of America.
In this way we can all build a nation under God truly "e pluribus unum."
Father Bruce Nieli, C.S.P., is a Paulist priest based in Memphis.