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Special Report

Seeking consolation for grieving hearts

New York

While people at Ground Zero continue to deal with the grim reality of finding body parts rather than survivors of the terrorist attack that tore down this city’s twin trade towers Sept. 11, other New Yorkers are trying to return to some semblance of normalcy.

Many have found solace on their knees. Churches are packed, and some area priests have reported Sunday Mass crowds the size of those on Christmas Eve. The number of churchgoers at daily worship has also climbed.

“There’s a national mood of sadness that Americans haven’t experienced in over 30 years,” Fr. Gerald Murray, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in Lower Manhattan told NCR.

Murray rode his bicycle to St. Vincent’s hospital within minutes of the hit on the World Trade Center and stayed at the hospital for two days, anointing the injured and blessing people, whether they were dying, recovering or looking for loved ones.

Among the most difficult jobs was comforting two young women whose fiancés were missing. “I thought of my sisters and how happy they were with their husbands,” said Murray who has cried many times since Sept. 11. “It’s inhuman not to cry.”

Murray and scores of other New York area priests are in for more crying as they plan funerals in their own parishes and attend those in others. Funerals have been attended by thousands of mourners, the crowds often pouring onto the pavement. This occurred Sept. 24 at Good Shepherd Church in Brooklyn where Bishop Thomas Daily presided at the funeral Mass for Fire Captain Timothy Stackpole. The father of six children, ages 7 to 18, died in the collapse of Tower 1.

Stackpole had survived an earlier encounter with death in an East New York fire. He could have retired then with full pay, but told a reporter that God “told me in my prayers, in my mind, to hold on,” Daily recalled in a tribute to the fireman and his wife, Tara.

The recovery of Stackpole’s body made the fireman’s funeral different from many taking place without a body. Directives on celebrating funerals of the dead when no body has been found or when only body parts have been recovered have gone to pastors from chancery officials in dioceses across the Greater New York area.

Celebrating a funeral liturgy without a body requires a careful selection of scripture, music and prayers that best reflect the pastoral situation. Pastors have been instructed to use the Order of Christian Funerals in planning such liturgies. Liturgical directors and vicars general have issued guidelines that suggest a cross or paschal candle, along with a picture of the deceased, be set at the place the body would normally occupy during the liturgy.

Identifying ashes

In cases where body parts have been recovered, the church directs that these remains be placed in a coffin or container and that a funeral Mass be said. In other instances, if it is not possible to recover a recognizable part of the body, but it is possible to positively identify ashes from any part of the cremated remains of an individual’s body, these may be placed in a worthy container and the funeral Mass may be celebrated.

Pastors have been told they can hold a “communal celebration” when there are many deceased parishioners in one parish. In such cases, an individual vigil service and rites of commendation can be done for each person. The guidelines leave much to the judgment of the pastor.

Murray expects that many families will choose to have a funeral or memorial Mass now, but others will wait until as many remains as possible are gathered and DNA testing can be done on body parts and tissue, leading to positive identification of victims. The church’s role is to counsel and to reassure people, Murray said, adding that now this has become the task of the entire church -- most especially of priests, teachers and parents.

The deaths of more than 1,200 foreign nationals in the trade tower attacks has brought clergy from overseas as well as the offer of grief counselors and other support personnel from dioceses across the nation. Bishop Henri Brincard of Le Puy-en-Velay, France, who oversees French Catholics abroad, visited rescue workers at the site and comforted parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul, a French-language parish.

One of them, Maroussia de Sevriuk, age 80, had watched American troops liberate Paris during World War II. She has been attending the midday Mass and praying for the victims, she said. Like many of her fellow parishioners, she likes to pray in front of the life-size statue of Christ in the tomb, a devotion she said has been heightened by the deaths of thousands of innocents at the trade towers.

“No one is unaffected -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Our educational system, our CCD programs, our youth ministry, our religious education will all feel this event,” said Fr. Robert Morrissey, vice chancellor of the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese. The grandchildren of today’s children will still talk of it, he said. For now the church needs to be at the forefront of consolation, Morrissey said.

One way in which numbed and grieving hearts may be consoled is through hearing the stories of survivors and of rescuers. Tom Rottenberger, a catechist at St. Martin of Tours in Bethpage, Long Island, said that whenever he has shared the tale of his near miraculous escape, it has brought solace to the hearer. Rottenberger, a vice president of marketing at the banking firm Morgan Stanley, left his tower office to visit St. Peter church across from the building.

“Normally there is no 8:25 morning Mass,” Rottenberger told NCR, but there was on Sept. 11 and so he stayed. He returned to the tower and boarded the elevator to return to his office on the 64th floor. The elevator stopped on the Plaza Level. When the door opened, Rottenberger heard screams. He saw people fleeing. He joined the exodus. On his way to safety he saw nine bodies on fire fall from the tower.

‘A gift from God’

Rottenberger believes the finger of God was on his shoulder. For months he had found himself going into St. Peter at noon and “just praying for grace.” On Catechist Sunday, Sept. 16, he was handed a paper containing these words from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God.”

While he feels anxiety when his commuter train goes through tunnels or when he takes the elevator to his makeshift offices in midtown Manhattan, the attack on his former workplace and his deliverance “has put the world, my profession -- everything -- into a different perspective.”

Rottenberger hopes that he can convey to his Confirmation class “how the Spirit interacts with us. Reality holds life and death. The reality is that the Spirit always abides.”

If Sept. 11 was the worst day within memory for most Americans, it was also the day on which the human spirit was renewed through acts of charity and compassion throughout the land and abroad. Residents of St. Christopher’s Inn in Garrison, N.Y., have volunteered to eat only bread and soup at lunch Wednesday during October. The money saved by these men, who are being treated for drug and/or alcohol addiction, will be donated to New York City World Trade Center Disaster Relief. The inn is run by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.

Across the world in Lebanon, the Beirut staff of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association has given 10 percent of its September salaries to the American Red Cross for victims and their families. Most of the staff joined the association during Lebanon’s civil war and have known terrorism and urban violence firsthand.

For Patrick O’Malley, 23, a firefighter in Brooklyn, the enormity of the terror has struck hard. “I’m Irish-American. I relate to violence in Northern Ireland. People wake up to this every day there,” he told NCR during a rest break at Ground Zero Sept. 21.

Not only is sifting through rubble and coming up with “no survivors, just body parts,” depressing, O’Malley said, but so are his feelings of “survivor guilt” in the midst of the loss of more than 300 fellow firefighters. Frequently firemen at Ground Zero just “get down on our knees and pray,” O’Malley said.

He said he was grateful to New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan and to all the priests who have comforted the rescuers. Asked what he expected from the church in the coming days, O’Malley said: “Nothing. It’s already happening. They’re doing everything they can for us in the hospitals, the parishes, the schools, the neighborhoods.”

For Msgr. John J. Brown, director of clergy personnel in the Brooklyn diocese, ministering at Ground Zero will remain one of the most cherished moments of his clerical life. “I was never so affirmed as a priest,” he said, recalling firemen who expressed their appreciation.

“As a priest we’re a sign of Christ,” Murray said inside St. Vincent de Paul. A Navy reservist, the pastor could be called up if America takes military action against terrorists. He hoped that “the eruption of such evil into our midst” would not serve as a justification to kill innocent people in a war. As he gazed into the sanctuary, the priest said that the American flag has taken on new meaning. “It reminds us of all who have suffered.”

Patricia Lefevere is NCR’s special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001