FOREVER CHANGED …
Nine days after the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington, I wrote an email to everyone in my address book at that time, family and friends alike. Today, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of those attacks, I thought about that letter and how I described my feelings, the reactions in Rome and in Europe, and how people marked September 11th, one of the blackest days in American history.
I am in California on vacation with family and friends as I write. I went back to read that email, although I almost know it by heart and have posted it several times since 2001, a time when I was working at the Vatican Information Service. I titled it “Forever Changed” and I’d like to share it with you.
In 2018 I visited Ground Zero and the amazing Museum erected to memorialize that event and the lives of the 2,977 people who died. The memorial fountains honor 2,983 people as they added the names of the 6 people killed in an attack on the Twin Towers in 1993.
I offer two slideshows of photos from Ground Zero –
Dear Family and friends,
I had all the best intentions of writing to you last week, following the horrific, unspeakable events in our nation, but too many things got in the way and time just ran out each day. I had just returned to Rome from the States on September 10th so there was some jet lag, but mainly a great deal of work as soon as I came back. And then our days became filled with and dominated by nonstop TV coverage of doubtless the most incredible week in our nation’s history. I am not sure the magnitude of that terrorist attack is truly implanted in my brain yet.
Please sit down and have a second cup of coffee for this will be a long letter. Today I wanted to share with you not only my feelings but life in Rome as of 2:46 p.m. (local time on Black Tuesday.
On September 11, just before 3 p.m. Rome time (9a.m. in NYC), my colleague Alfonso called from his office next to mine and told me to turn my TV on CNN to see something horrendous. I did so and thought for about one minute that I was looking at a horrible plane accident. And then I saw – right there on my screen, bigger than life – a second plane directly hit the other Twin Tower – and I knew it was terrorism. I was riveted to the screen, my brain not yet totally processing what my eyes had seen – and then the news that the Pentagon was burning! And then that a fourth plane, with terrorist commandos, had crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. Real became surreal.
The impossible became possible.
I watched TV in the office for a few hours and then went home. Since my satellite dish has not been working since July, I watched a bit of Italian news and then took a nap, trying to shake off jet lag, and later joined American friends for dinner that night at their house. These were times when one craved the company and comfort of friends, especially American friends.
The next hours and days the TV became like another limb on my body – I could not get through the days without it – especially because we were cut off from America. For a day or two it was tough or impossible to reach New York and Washington via phone and for a number of days there was no physical way to get to the United States from Rome – or anywhere else in the world. You’ll never understand that feeling – although some of you to whom I’m writing live in Rome or abroad so you DO understand.
I know all of you have been watching TV and I am sure you are fully aware of the support for the U.S. around the world – the candlelight vigils and processions, the myriad church services, the flying of flags at half mast, the countless bouquets of flowers laid near embassies or consulates, the Europeans who stopped their American friends – or even strangers – to pat their arms, express their condolences, give them a hug, buy them a meal or ask if they needed someone to be near them.
The three young children of an American colleague of mine in the press office all asked Joy if they could donate blood to help the wounded Americans. My friends at Zi Gaetana’s restaurant in Rome helped some of the Americans stranded here last week by offering them their meals. I am sure such stories were repeated throughout Italy – and the world.
I am also sure you saw the extraordinarily moving images of how Europe mourned last Friday when everyone and everything stopped for 3 minutes at noon and stores kept their doors closed for 10 minutes starting at noon.
Whoever they were – simple citizens, government leaders, tourists, salespeople, business men and women – alone, in twos, groups of 10, 100 and 100,000 – and wherever they were at noon – at outdoor markets, in churches, touring, eating lunch in a fancy restaurant or a fast food place, at work in factories, offices and stores – they simply stopped, frozen in their tracks, silent in prayer and reflection for 3 minutes. It was like the biblical story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt.
To see the images on the Italian news that afternoon and evening was remarkable, moving and unforgettable. One station played “Amazing Grace” for 3 minutes and simply showed images of how Europeans stopped, put their lives on hold for 3 minutes and mourned.
Here in the Vatican the staff members of each office in the Roman Curia prayed the angelus at noon and sang the requiem. I sincerely hope you all saw the unforgettable pictures of an anguished Pope John Paul praying in his private chapel at Castelgandolfo. And, in a first in the history of weekly general audiences, the Holy Father dedicated his weekly catechesis during the September 12 audience in St. Peter’s Square, not to a religious or spiritual theme, but entirely to the attack in the United States. And that is what my show on Vatican Radio that Wednesday was dedicated to – as were many shows in many languages.
Italians have called and written me (and just about every American living in this great country) to express their condolences, horror, indignation, disbelief, anger and support for our country. They have also expressed in recent days their fears that the U.S. will retaliate in such a way that they will stoop to the level of the terrorists and ending up killing innocent people. Europeans, to a man, woman and child, have said they are all Americans now. Every Italian who has spoken to me has said how well they know that their country, that Europe, would not be what it is today had it not been for America during and after World War II – especially the Marshall Plan. “For once in our lives, we can now help America,” is what they tell me.
As the hours, then the days, then the first week passed, feelings have changed very little. If anything they are more profound. The mourning will be lengthy, the anger deep, the revulsion everlasting. All of us STILL want to wake up – because we know this was all just a terrible nightmare and things will be right when dawn comes and the sun rises and warms us and dissipates the darkness that surrounds us.
We have, like it or not, awakened – only to discover that this has not been a dream or a nightmare but rather our worst nightmare come true. And the full impact will come in small ways and large: a greater police presence at monuments, embassies, government buildings, military bases and “symbols” such as the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, St. Peter’s, etc. There will be more requests for IDs as we move about, and also a terrific impact on the world of travel – passengers, airline employees, travel agents, airport employees and so on.
I’d like to interject two personal notes here: 1. I don’t mind if some of my rights are abbreviated if the new measures being enacted will help to eradicate terrorism in the world; 2. I do not agree with the media who feel that the public “has a right” to know everything that is going on. We do not have a right – nor do we need to know what the government is planning. I don’t want America to cease being an open society – but we don’t have to know what the CIA, FBI, etc., etc., are doing to entrap and/or capture terrorists, to infiltrate their organizations, to destroy their economic base.
This past Sunday at 10:30 at the church of Santa Susanna here in Rome, the parish for Americans which has been run by the Paulist Fathers since 1922, there was an extraordinarily touching and beautiful Mass for the victims and families and friends of the victims of this attack. American Cardinal Edmund Szoka presided, about 50 priests (one of whom lost a relative) concelebrated and I was honored to be one of the three lectors. There were so many people that they flowed out of the church and onto the adjacent piazza. The new ambassador to the Holy See, Jim Nicholson was there with his wife Suzanne, as well as former Ambassador Thomas Melady and his wife, Margaret. A surprise guest, who found himself stranded in Rome after the attacks, was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his wife.
Father Paul Robichaud, our rector, gave a beautiful homily and tried to answer the questions “Where was God?” and “Why did God allow this to happen?” Half of Sunday’s collection will be sent to New York to help the families of the victims.
At the end of Mass Cardinal Szoka offered some stirring reflections in both English and Italian and then Ambassador Nicholson spoke. He had paper in front of him but rarely looked at it – the words came straight from his heart. As we processed out of church, we three lectors were last and Richard Zaccaroli carried the U.S. flag – which received an enormous round of applause. We stood outside the church and sang patriotic songs, reluctant to leave each other.
I know that what we did here in Rome was repeated thousands of time, in tens of thousands of churches, all around the world. Our fears, our hurt and anger, our pride, our solidarity, our patriotism, our hopes, our prayers – the entire spectrum of emotions – you felt and lived these and so did we.
Well, dear family and friends, I think that is it for now. I’m sure I will think of things I missed, but thanks for hanging in there.
A closing note before I leave you: I have a colorful sign on my desk that I’d like to share with you: “Don’t just live the length of your life, Live the width of it as well.”
God bless you one and all! May He protect you and yours – and may He give you an extra big hug today!