A woman grieves at the inscription of her late husband's name at the edge of the North Pool near the national 9/11 Memorial in New York City Sept. 11. Memorial observances on the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks recalled the 3,000 people who lost their lives in New York City, Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon. (CNS photo/Chang Lee, Reuters)

Back in 2001, I was fortunate enough to work in the national office of Catholic Charities USA. Every year, in early September, national would host a conference for local Charities’ offices from across the country. In 2001, our annual gathering was held in Secaucus, New Jersey, which is right across the river from New York City.

As national staff member, I was asked to show up early at the hotel to help with the preparations. The annual conference was the kind of event where we were encouraged to bring along our families but two of our three little girls were in school at that time. My family would have to wait until Friday, the day the conference began, before they could drive up from Washington, DC.

I remember standing in the lobby of the hotel waiting for them to arrive. I happened to be talking to a lovely woman by the name of Barbara, a Charities’ director from the Bay area, when my wife pulled up in our dark green minivan. The door opened and out jumped Mary, 8, Martha, 5, and Sarah. 2. All three were squealing with excitement and very happy to be free after such a long and confining drive. Their hair was wild with Cheetos everywhere and all three were at different stages of colds with their noses still running.

My poor wife began to unload our luggage but I could tell she was not very happy. Apparently, the girls had been wild the entire trip and not very good listeners. In fact the first words from my wife were, “Here are your children.”

I knew right away that I needed to be the one unloading the van and I needed to take the girls with me, it didn’t matter where, to let my wife have some quiet time to herself in order to decompress. However, before I could say anything Barbara jumped in and asked if she could take the girls up to her room so she could brush out their hair. 

Actually it was more like pleading. She explained that her daughters were now grown and one of the things she missed from her days as a young mom was being able to brush their hair. Barbara said she even had chocolate in her room so before my wife or I could say anything the girls answered, “Yes!” And off they went for some personal grooming time and candy.

The conference was a tremendous success. I believe we had approximately 800 Charities’ staff in attendance that year from all over the United States. We also had representatives from the international headquarters of Caritas in Rome. Most of the gathering was there at the hotel in Secaucus but we there were also trips to New York City and our big gala, dinner and dancing, was held on Ellis Island. It was the first time our girls had ever been on a ferry and we even sailed right next to the Statue of Liberty.

After the conference concluded on Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, we piled the kids into the van and this time I drove. As we got onto the New Jersey turnpike heading south I recall looking to my left and seeing the southern tip of Manhattan. I also remember my tiny Martha waving good-bye and saying “Bye-Bye Twin Towers.”

Needless to say, it is with a heavy heart whenever I think back on that weekend. Before joining Catholic Charities I had worked several years for Senator John McCain on the Senate Commerce Committee and was still friends with many of the staff and interns who I had gotten to know. Mark Bingham, a former intern for the senator, who had gone on to start his own public relations firm, was on Flight 93 that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11. It was supposed to be headed to San Francisco but was high jacked and likely on its way towards our nation’s capital when it went down.

It’s still painful and frightening to think that someone I knew had been on that flight. I remember that entire day thinking about what St. John Paul II had taught in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. That death had entered the world through the violence of the evil one eloquently described in Genesis and that murder was unfortunately “a page rewritten daily, with inexorable and degrading frequency, in the book of human history.”

It is also frightening to recall that another person who I knew was supposed to be on that same flight. You see, Barbara had booked her return on that United Airlines Flight 93 but was forced to postpone her trip back to the Bay area because she had caught a terrible head cold. Apparently, spending two hours in a hotel room with three little girls who were continually wiping their noses did the trick.

Life is a wonderful gift from God, a gift that can too easily be taken away by others. But we, as Christians are taught not to live our lives in fear of death but instead we should turn to the cross, especially on the 9/11 anniversary, and remember our Lord’s sacrifice and his divine mercy.

Let us thank the Lord for his love, which is stronger than death and sin. It is revealed and put into practice as mercy in our daily lives, and prompts every person in turn to have “mercy” towards the crucified one. Is not loving God and loving one’s neighbor and even one’s “enemies,” after Jesus’ example, the program of life of every baptized person and of the whole Church? — St. John Paul II, Divine Mercy Sunday homily, April 22, 2001