Bishop O'Connell holds up a cross made of rebar from the Twin Towers that fell on 9/11. John Batkowski photo
Bishop O'Connell holds up a cross made of rebar from the Twin Towers that fell on 9/11. John Batkowski photo
On the evening of Sept. 11, a fall-like breeze blew across the grounds of St. Mary Church, carrying with it messages of guidance and hope.

“For those of us who witnessed and yet survived that fateful day, that 9/11 of 19 years ago, our national memory, our parish memory, our personal memory endures,” the voice of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., echoed across the Middletown parking lot as faithful listened on their radios inside their vehicles or sat on lawn chairs at the foot of their bumpers.

“Painful though those memories may still be, they have not blinded us to the Lord Jesus’ Gospel message and his light that alone illumines all darkness, to the comfort that his love alone brings, to the hope that he alone can offer, to his truth that alone removes the splinters in every eye,” he said.

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Addressing the roughly 1,000 who gathered for Mass on the first evening of the parish’s three-day, parking-lot “God, Country, Family” revival, the Bishop held up a cross, explaining that it was given to him by a stranger just days after the  Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The man was a first responder from New York.

“This piece of rebar from the Twin Towers, to me is a relic,” Bishop O’Connell said, holding up the metal cross. “And each year at this time, I bring it to the celebration of Mass wherever I am.”

A Shepherd’s Words

In his homily – and his first public Mass since the pandemic began – Bishop O’Connell preached about the painful memories of 9/11, the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in the attacks in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa., and the 25,000 who suffered from related injuries.

“They were our mothers and fathers; our sisters and brothers; our relatives, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our parishioners here at St. Mary, Mother of God,” he said, acknowledging that the Middletown community lost nearly 40 of their own members. “For us, 9/11 has become a sacred day, and being together in prayer this evening is most fitting.”

Bishop O’Connell reflected on the evening’s Gospel reading from St. Luke (6:39-42), which reads, “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? … Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?”

“Our Gospel reading from St. Luke tonight raises thought-provoking questions,” Bishop O’Connell said, explaining that in this account, Jesus had just finished the Sermon on the Mount after calling his twelve disciples on the mountain where he had taken them to pray.   

“They came down the mountainside only to find a great crowd had gathered, waiting to hear Jesus, to be healed and cured by him, just to touch him because he had a reputation of power,” the Bishop said. “The point of Jesus’ first question is this: We must be very careful WHOM we choose to follow. The point the second question poses depends upon the first: We must be very careful WHERE they lead and WHERE we follow.”

He continued, “The terrorists behind 9/11 were truly evil men with hearts full of hatred and destruction.  That’s who they were. Blind guides! And the path they led … was hatred and destruction. They gave their followers not the will of God but a glimpse of hell: That’s where they led them, and they followed them unquestionably there.”  

“My sisters and brothers,” Bishop O’Connell urged, “in whatever circumstances we find ourselves today, in our challenges and sufferings, in our freedoms and our joys, with the clearest eyes and vision for the future, let us seek to follow the Lord Jesus.”

Looking for Guidance

Seeking the wisdom of faith was one reason Karen Frusta attended the revival. Sitting in front of her car before Mass, the parishioner of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, listened to the patriotic and faith-filled tunes of the Saved by Grace Band of St. Mary Parish.

“I think it’s good that we are all together like this; it reminds me that we are going to make it,” she said, speaking of the pandemic and current unrest across the nation. “I believe the country needs hope in the Bible during these times. The Word of God, it’s a light onto our path. These are hard times, and I think prayer and praise and worship are the only way to go.” 

The Dyer Family of St. Mary Parish agreed as they sat together in the bed of their pickup.

“The message I’m hoping to receive tonight is one of peace,” said Leslie Dyer, as her husband, Kevin, and two young girls sat beside her. She explained that earlier that day, she had been reading Psalm 91. “I was reading about how the Lord is my refuge and how I’m protected with him. I feel like our country and the whole earth need to be protected with the love of God. There is so much going on that’s not of the love of God.”

Turning to Christ

Father Jeff Kegley, parish pastor, who concelebrated Mass along with Father Richard Osborn and Father Jordan McConway, O.P., parochial vicars, said one of his hopes for the “God, Country, Family” weekend revival was for people to remember God’s love during these troubled times.

“We look to man to solve our problems; we have looked to government to solve our problems. The only [way] to solve our problems is when we turn to Jesus Christ. He is our hope. We’re at that point where God has our attention, and we have to cry out, ‘Lord save us again.’”

Speaking of the 37 Middletown residents who were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Father Kegley referenced the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

“Even though we will never forget, Jesus comes to us in a way that fills our hearts,” the pastor said.

Indeed, those who died were not forgotten, their names read during the celebration of Mass. In addition, before Mass, Darlene Line, a retired senior agent with the Department of Homeland Security, gave a witness talk.

Comparing the insecurity of 911 to current times, she said, “Aren’t we facing today, in the pandemic chaos, uncertainty and loneliness? I’m here to tell you today, just like in the days of 9/11, Jesus still sits on the throne. In Christ, we place our hope,” she said to the sounds of applause and car horns honking.