“Nothing is going to be the same after this.”
Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos was speaking to the prelate seated next to him at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ administrative committee in Washington, D.C.
A staff member had just told the president of the bishops’ conference that a plane had been flown into one of the massive towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
“Those of us of a certain age could remember people talking about when a B-29 flew into the Empire State Building right after the Second World War,” Bishop Gaydos recalled.
The bishops paused briefly to pray for the injured and then continued with their meeting.
“It seemed like no time after that that we heard that a plane had flown into another one of the buildings at the World Trade Center,” Bishop Gaydos recalled.
“That’s when it dawned on us that something was very, very wrong,” he said.
Bishop Gaydos, who led the Jefferson City diocese from 1997-2018, recently shared his recollections of that horrific day, 20 years ago.
“Pretty soon after that, they came and told us that the Pentagon had also been hit by a plane, right there in Washington, D.C., where we were,” he recalled.
Word soon followed that a fourth plane had been hijacked and was on a trajectory for Washington — presumably the White House or the Capitol.
“That’s the one that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,” he noted.
At noon that day, all the bishops at the committee meeting walked across the street to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to concelebrate Mass.
The basilica was filled with students from The Catholic University of America.
“A majority of the students there were from the East Coast,” Bishop Gaydos noted. “Many had relatives and acquaintances who were working in or near the World Trade Center.”
After Mass, the bishops quickly finished up their agenda and adjourned.
“I had flown into Washington,” Bishop Gaydos noted. “It quickly occurred to me that nobody was going to honor my ticket for my Thursday flight home.”
The Paulist Fathers extended their hospitality to him and about a dozen other bishops that night at their collegiate house of study on Catholic University campus.
“I was so grateful to be staying with them,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d have been sitting alone in a hotel room and watching all of this unfold on TV.”
Instead, the bishops and priests watched the coverage together in the community room and talked about what was going on.
“That was a real comfort for me,” said Bishop Gaydos.
The next morning, a friend helped him track down one of the last available rental cars in the city.
He headed west on Interstate 64 and stopped in Charleston, West Virginia, for the night.
“There was almost no traffic on the highways, and no contrails in sky, no air traffic at all,” he recalled.
The next day, he continued on through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
He stopped to visit his mother in St. Louis before a priest from Jefferson City picked him up and drove him home.
This all gave him plenty of time to think about what was happening.
“If you look at the whole sweep of salvation history, you now that God is usually most keenly present at the very moments where He seems most absent,” said Bishop Gaydos.
“Even Jesus called out from the cross, ‘My God, My God, why have You abandoned Me?’” he noted. “And the Father could not have been any closer to Him than at that very moment, because He was absolutely doing His Father’s will.”
A sense of bewilderment and abandonment is to be expected in such times of horror and distress.
“But that doesn’t mean God is not present!” Bishop Gaydos declared. “Understanding that, you recognize the fact that when we most need God, that’s when He’s most present. I never had any doubt about that.”
The evening of the attacks, he directed the priests of the Diocese of Jefferson City to offer Masses for the repose of the souls of all who had lost their lives, and asked everyone to pray fervently for peace and healing.
“This is a time of shock and sorrow for us all,” he wrote. “I encourage all to pray for peace. For those who are suffering now because of the tragic events of this morning, we know that Christ is the One Who can help them during this difficult time. Please keep all of these people in your prayers.”
Twenty years later, Bishop Gaydos remains convinced that even the people who masterminded and carried-out the attacks on 9/11 could not have imagined everything they were unleashing.
“The fact of the matter is, people have to be very desperate to do the kind of things terrorists do,” he stated.
They are generally devoid of all hope and wind up lashing out in their desperation, he said.
He asserted that the growing disparity between the people who have all the necessities of life and those who do not, only intensifies such desperation.
“A lot of that is at the heart of so much unrest all across the world,” he declared.
He said it’s especially important for Christ’s followers to give witness to “that message of mercy and hope and the understanding that things can get better if we can just open our hearts to trying to secure decent justice for everybody.”
“It’s possible,” he said. “We have the technology, the wherewithal to do it. We just have to have the will.”
He pointed to the wisdom of Jesus’s command to “love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you.”
“Love can be transforming,” Bishop Gaydos stated. “It can be disarming. That’s the radical message of Jesus.”
He pointed out that God’s justice in this life is not a passive thing that puts everything back the way it was.
“In one sense, you can’t put humpty dumpty back together again,” the bishop noted. “But the justice of God is a healing justice that ultimately makes things right.”
Christians must work without vengeance to help bring that justice into being.
“The closer we can come to doing things the way God does, putting justice and mercy together, the better off we’re going to be,” he said.
“It is my fervent prayer that we can continue to witness to the fact that there’s a better world, and it’s ours to be had if only we work together,” he said.