Those of us who are old enough to remember 9/11 typically have a vivid memory of what we were doing when the first two planes flew into the Manhattan World Trade Center. I remember that it was a cloudy, Texas heat-filled day. I was completing cross country practice in the back roads surrounding my high school in New Braunfels, Texas. The run felt a bit rushed since we only had two school periods for practice. Getting the news of the attacks also felt rushed as I was trying to get myself ready for class. It was eerie and unbelievable. Still, September 11, 2001 holds in my memory for the gravity of the attacks, the amount of lives lost and, more personally, because of where it led me in my own life.
Before 9/11, I was simply a high school sophomore “figuring out who I was” and where I wanted to go to college. But afterwards, I started to think more about public service. Military service seemed like the best way, as I was familiar with it due to my dad's own military service. After some encouragement from family friends, I applied and was accepted to the US Air Force Academy. Upon graduation in 2008, I was commissioned a second lieutenant and began service as a communications officer. I served on active duty for six years, one tour in Iraq, and I continue to serve as a reservist. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to serve, for the people I encountered and how my military service has shaped me into the person I am today.
I share my military service to paint another picture alongside the backdrop of so much grievance and loss caused by the 9/11 attacks. My story is not a common story among the American population. To this day, approximately only 7% of Americans have served in the military. And of that population, only 18% make up the post-9/11 veterans. But what is a common story is that among the men and women who chose military service, many feel their lifelong call is to serve others. While most Americans have been reading about it, those with military background have practiced a life of service that is indelible. The military trains and shapes you to protect the lives of your fellow man. As you go up in the ranks of the military, your greater responsibility is to be a leader who ensures their subordinates have the tools and training to get the mission done. This familiarity with and desire for a life of service among those in the military offers hope in the midst of such tragic events like the attacks on 9/11. As a result, veterans have been inspired to serve, even beyond military service. Those who come home from active duty are still seeking a mission to serve, and the Church is a good place to do just that. For some, religious life or the priesthood do not seem that far off. Others take leadership positions in their parish councils as lay members or advocate for the veterans to be welcomed into their local Catholic community.
As you consider pastoral ways to remember 9/11, I encourage you to seek out veterans or those returning from military service in your community. These veterans can be a part of the hope in our world and help seek the good out of such loss. I invite you to enlist their support to organize a memorial prayer service in your local church. Beyond military veterans, we also see the other local emergency services who have also been greatly affected by 9/11. Don’t forget to include them in your outreach as well.
Here are two practical suggestions on what to include in such a memorial prayer service:
To learn more about serving others through faith-based service opportunities, please visit the website of our affiliate, the Catholic Volunteer Network, by clicking here.
Those are the words that will inevitably come up at some point from anyone who knows that I grew up in New York City. I was in seventh grade, attending my Catholic elementary school in Queens, when my math teacher came in and told us all to “start praying.” I was very confused. This was before the age of iPhones or instant communication – there was confusion, worry, and an overall sense of terror. Eventually when we were told the details, it was followed up by a precautionary statement that we might have to seek shelter in our school’s basement and church hall. I was worried about my mother; she was working in Manhattan that day.
Tomorrow is the twelfth anniversary of that tragic day. I truly believe that everyone who experienced it deals with each anniversary in a different way. Here in Washington, DC, many people visit the Newseum’s 9/11 exhibit while many others around the country watch re-broadcasted news footage from 2001. I always find it interesting how people deal with grief. Those who were lucky enough to not have their families hurt by loss on that day or from a related illness, often times still feel as if they lost someone close to them.
Every year, I am drawn back to the words that my math teacher said – the first words of comfort on a day that would be filled with strangers comforting strangers – “start praying.” She didn’t know all the details, we certainly didn’t know all the details, but her instinct in that moment was to encourage us to look to God for comfort. She encouraged us to seek shelter in the arms of the Lord. I prayed that day and I take time to pray every September 11th that passes, to thank God for keeping my family safe and to pray for the thousands of men and women who lost their lives.
When Pope Benedict XVI journeyed to the United States on his apostolic visit in 2008, he visited Ground Zero in Manhattan to pray at a place where many Americans come to pray – no matter their faith. Instead of paraphrasing or commenting on his prayer, I leave it here for you to read and contemplate on your own. I will be praying it tomorrow; I would encourage you to do so as well.
O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.
We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here—
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and
Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.
We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives
with courage and hope.
We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.
God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.
God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.
Pope Benedict XVI -- Prayer at Ground Zero
New York, New York -- 20 April 2008
Chris Pierno is the Media & Marketing Manager for the Catholic Apostolate Center.