Father Joseph McCaffrey had just earned his pilot’s license and was hoping to take to the skies on the crisp, sunny morning of September 11, 2001, when parishioners told him after Mass that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers in New York City.
He hurried to his rectory at Saint James the Apostle Parish in New Bedford, Lawrence County, where he learned that a second plane had struck the other tower.
In addition to his parish duties, Father McCaffrey is chaplain to the Pittsburgh office of the FBI. When Flight 93 went down in Shanksville, PA, he knew he would respond.
Father McCaffrey recalled those fateful moments after delivering the invocation in a Program of Remembrance on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, held at the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh on Sept. 9. Among the attendees was former president George W. Bush, who appeared via video link.
When Father McCaffrey reached the crash site on September 12, he shared that his first act was to consecrate what was now a mass grave.
He cast holy water toward the impact crater, praying, “By the Lord’s own three days in the tomb, He hallowed the graves of all who believe in Him and made the grave a sign of hope and a promise of the resurrection, even as it claims our mortal bodies.”
A family member of one of the victims who was at the program said Father McCaffrey’s words comforted him.
His FBI duties normally involve helping law enforcement officers cope with the impact of traumatic situations. This time they asked him to care for the families of the dead, who would soon start arriving in Shanksville. He became the liaison between Flight 93 relatives and law enforcement, and remains in touch with some today.
By happenstance, the first family to arrive was Catholic, and their first question was whether he had blessed the ground. He was able to assure them that he had. But his ministry was to people of all faiths, and of no faith at all, whose hearts were broken on 9/11.
“We are there for everyone,” he said of chaplains. It’s about “listening skills, being present supportive and encouraging. Sometimes it’s just the presence…just being there is very helpful to people.”
Father McCaffrey said he sought light in darkness.
“In all religions there is a sense that God brings good out of evil. It’s what I was praying and thinking about. We have this terrible attack, yet our hope is not lost. God will, in his providence, bring about good.”
For Father McCaffrey that goodness was found in the solidarity he witnessed, whether between law enforcement agencies that were typically at loggerheads, or neighbors of differing viewpoints. It was especially evident among the passengers who boarded Flight 93 as strangers, but banded together to make their deaths an instrument for saving others.
The national unity after 9/11 went deeper than patriotism, he said. “I saw it as a sign of humanity coming together in compassion and love and cooperation. And that sticks with me to this day.”
He added, “We did it then. We can do it now.”
Watch Father McCaffrey’s entire remarks. Video courtesy of the FBI, Pittsburgh office