On September 11, 2001, less than eight months after George W. Bush was sworn in as 43rd President, Al-Qaeda militants executed history’s deadliest act of terror. That morning started off like any other clear day on the East Coast. People in New York went to their jobs in the World Trade Center. Others went to work in their Pentagon offices in northern Virginia. Mass was offered at 6:45 AM at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Arlington. People heading to California boarded planes. American Airlines #11 departed Boston at 7:59 AM en route to Los Angeles. Fifteen minutes later, United #175 also departed Boston for Los Angeles. At 8:20 AM, American Airlines #77 also left Washington Dulles International Airport for Los Angeles. At 8:42 AM, United #93 departed Newark International Airport for San Francisco. But on that fateful day, all four planes were hijacked shortly after takeoff. Only four minutes after United #93 left Newark, the terrorists crashed American Airlines #11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM. Shortly afterwards, United #175 was crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 AM.
At around 9:30 AM, Fr. Steve McGraw, a newly ordained priest stationed at Saint Anthony's in Falls Church, was on his way to a burial at Arlington Cemetery after saying the school Mass at his parish. He took a wrong turn and got stuck in traffic on Route 27 near the Pentagon’s west façade. At 9:37 AM, he saw a commercial airliner fly low near his car, clip a light pole, and crash into the building. He was not aware of the attacks in New York and thought it was an accident. It was American Airlines #77. He grabbed his purple stole and book and bolted from his car to anoint and pray over the burnt, fleeing victims.
As television reporters were covering the New York attacks outside the White House, they saw black smoke billowing in the background. This created confusion, as they were not yet aware that the Pentagon had been attacked. Meanwhile, the passengers on United #93 tried to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers, as they had received word, via cell phones, that they may be headed for the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. In their heroic attempt, the plane crashed at 10:03 AM in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.
The Pentagon is about a mile from Our Lady of Lourdes and within the parish boundaries. Many people in Aurora Hills and Crystal City heard the crash, including Fr. Francis DeRosa, parochial vicar at Our Lady Lourdes. He soon joined Fr. McGraw. Together, the priests prayed the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and they were brought to the inner courtyard of the Pentagon to console the survivors. At 5:00 PM, the rescue efforts had ended, and the priests went home. By the end of the day, Al-Qaeda’s well-choreographed opera of death had taken the lives of over 2,900 people, including several of their own.
Many parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes remember the events of September 11 as if they were yesterday. Who cannot recall with emotion those tragic moments, which betoken the sobering reality of evil in our world? The words of Christ came to us all when we saw those civilian airplanes crash into workplaces: “An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28).
On this solemn September 11, twenty years hence, we not only commemorate those who lost their lives - we commemorate the principle and the ideal that were attacked as well: the principle of human rights and the ideal of a secure and prosperous humanity. The United States has always sought to make this principle and ideal a reality, despite the often-violent resistance of opponents from within and without. Any child can point out this country’s faults and the ironies of its efforts to secure peace and justice. But what critics cannot see is the love of those principles and the personal sacrifice that so many American men and women – and not to mention their families on the home front – made to secure a better world for all peoples.
I would like to take this occasion to extend my blessings and the assurances of my prayers – and to speak personally – to our brave and loyal service men and women who served so honorably in Afghanistan. While many of you may feel disillusioned in the wake of recent events, I would like to personally say – not only as an American but also as a priest – your sacrifices were not in vain. Your sacrifices and good works are, and will always be, meaningful. They will prove fruitful beyond all human reckoning. As an American, your loyal service and excellent duty are a source of pride for our country. As a Christian, God will bring to completion the good you have done and purify its faults. Try not to let the current situation sadden you – at least not too much. Look neither to the left nor to the right but stay on the high road (Deuteronomy 2:27). Whatever sorrow you feel, recognize in it the hope and desire for the world that you sought to achieve. Recall Good Friday. Sin inflicted pain on the Savior, and everyone said, “You lost.” But God vindicated the truth in the Resurrection of the One who was reckoned dead. In this world, good always looks like it is losing. But in truth, it has already won. Take courage, you have won the good fight.