As night fell on 9-11-2001, faithful gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the Basilica. Photos courtesy of Catholic University of America
As night fell on 9-11-2001, faithful gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the Basilica. Photos courtesy of Catholic University of America
It was a beautiful Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 20 years ago. I was scheduled to concelebrate Mass later that day so I had a bit more personal time that morning to read the paper, have another cup of coffee and watch the end of New York’s “Today” show before heading downstairs to my office to begin work.

It looked beautiful on TV in New York, too, that September 11, 2001, until the broadcast was interrupted shortly after 9 a.m. with live scenes of smoke billowing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  A plane had apparently crashed into the building.  No one seemed sure what had happened until, moments later, a second plane hit the South Tower.  It all seemed surreal, too much of a coincidence to be accidental.  By 9:30, the scene shifted to President Bush in Florida, announcing “a national tragedy,” confirming “an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

PODCAST: Click to listen to Bishop O'Connell's reflection on 9-11.

Just minutes after the President’s announcement, the Pentagon Building erupted in fire and smoke seven miles away from the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  I walked out the front door of my office residence and saw the smoke rising in the distance.  I quickly learned that another plane had crashed there, only to be followed by yet another plane crash; this time near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  Our country was under attack by savage terrorists.

Like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, everyone alive on that day remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing in those horrifying moments on that fateful day.  Everything changed in America.

I remember in those early hours that my mind was racing in a thousand directions.  I started to pray.  As university president, I was responsible for the safety of over 6,000 students and 1,200 employees on campus.  The day was just beginning.  Since it was Tuesday, not as many early classes were scheduled and fewer faculty from off campus were starting to arrive.  I convened a meeting of the university administration present on campus along with the directors of public safety to develop a quick plan for the university’s approach to the events so far. Everyone made a courageous effort to remain calm as students and staff were pouring out of their dormitories, classroom buildings and offices onto the Great Lawn between the university and the Basilica of the National Shrine.

There was no outdoor microphone system in place and, so, public safety officers gave me a bullhorn to address the frightened assembly gathered.  I announced that all classes and activities were cancelled.  No one was permitted to leave campus or to use their cars or the Metro subway system.  Campus residents were asked to phone their families to let them know they were safe, although cellphone service at that point was spotty at best.  The campus computer systems and email were still functional. 

Faculty were directed not to come to campus. University administrators, chaplains, counselors and public safety officers were deployed to circulate among students and staff in an effort to maintain some order and calm in the midst of the understandable fear that everyone felt.  We began praying the rosary and campus food services were asked to have meals ready.  We developed plans to keep the students occupied as best we could.  University administrators reconvened throughout the day to share updates and progress reports. Coincidentally, many bishops were in town that day for a board meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops near CUA.  The campus community was invited to join them for Mass in the Basilica at noon and the church was filled.  By evening, everyone present on campus gathered on the Great Lawn again for a candlelight prayer vigil.

As the crowd began to disperse, I turned to walk back to my campus residence and was stopped in my tracks as I looked up and saw the American Flag flying against the backdrop of the university’s main administration building.  Whatever emotions I had been holding in all day emerged in a burst of tears – I remember the feeling so well – tears from the deepest parts of me.  My whole body shook as a I stood there, alone, crying.  “May God bless and protect our country and our people.”

The events of that day are as clear in my mind as though they happened yesterday. I shall never forget. Occasionally, I hear from CUA alumni/ae who recall being on campus at CUA on September 11, 2001.  They speak of the fear and anxiety they felt but also of the comforting assurance given by the chaplains, counselors and staff in general.  Some few of them lost loved ones at the World Trade Center while others “knew” someone who perished.  But, whether or not they had personal connections with the tragedy, they were all affected by it.

People turned to God that day, maybe for the first time in a while. They prayed for the victims, for safety, for an end to terrorism, for our country.  God had not and would not abandon us in the face of evil.

Although we witnessed the worst of humanity at work that terrible day 20 years ago, we also saw the very best of courage and compassion in those who reached out to help, true heroes.  Tragedy and fear also bring out the best of the human spirit.

There was a real bond of unity evident among anyone you met in the days following 9-11, occasioned at first by shock and grief but quickly transformed into resilience, resolve and noble patriotism.   We were all together, “one nation under God.”

Never Forget.