It was 2001. None of us over the age of 25 will forget where we were on 9/11 of that year. On that Tuesday morning, terrorists crashed planes into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and, so close to home, into a field near Shanksville as passengers thwarted the hijackers’ last attack. Nearly 3,000 Americans died that day with profound sadness.
But do you also remember where you were on 9/14? That was a Day of Prayer called by President George W. Bush. It was a time set aside to pray — for the victims, for our country, for ourselves. So many people turned to God that day.
I was in my office as general secretary at the diocesan Pastoral Center on 9/14. My friend and co-worker, Sister Margaret Hannan, came in and asked me to look out my window onto Third Avenue. Below me, thousands of people had filled Third Avenue outside St. Mary of Mercy Church and up the street to PPG Place. All of these people had wanted to come to the noon Mass for the Day of Prayer that Bishop Donald Wuerl was celebrating at St. Mary’s. The church was already filled. They couldn’t get inside. They had come out of a need for God in the face of the horror of 9/11. To pray to God together, to find hope and healing with and through God.
I took out my New American Bible and headed downstairs and out the door of the Pastoral Center. I soon discovered that not only Third Avenue but Stanwix Street was crowded with thousands of people who couldn’t get inside the church. I called to them asking them to pray with me. To hear God’s word on consolation and peace. To feel, hear and see together the presence of God in our prayers.
It was a scene repeated in parishes, temples and mosques throughout the area that day and evening. In our churches, Mass, prayer, crowds of people coming together. People reaching out in their need for God at such a tragic time.
Yes, I remember 9/11 all too well. But I also remember that Day of Prayer. Even the most secular of secular media covered and commented on the extraordinary and virtual universal turning to God evidenced everywhere in America that day. That is my lasting memory of 9/14; how people came seeking a place to pray because they needed God.
Three weeks later, everything returned to what we sadly call “normal.” Football games were played, schools were up and running, the work was piled on everyone’s desk. Life went back to what it had been. The high church attendance of the previous three weeks subsided to “business as usual.” No demonstrable change in the way we lived.
The moment was there on 9/14 — the recognition of how we absolutely needed God — and then, for too many, it was gone in a matter of days. I could look out my window to Third Avenue at noon and there was the usual — a few stragglers, people looking for lunch or to do some banking before heading back to the office.
There is a lesson of 9/14 more eternally lasting than that of 9/11: how we absolutely need God in our lives. This isn’t a small thing to remember. It is everything. God sustains us, each and every day.
The need for God in our lives isn’t occasional. We need him in the moments great and small. We need God in the midst of good times, quiet times, bad times. We need God in our joys. We need God in our struggles.
We need God in the moments of heartache and pain — when we are facing illness, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job. We need God when a loved one suffers. We need God when we lose a friend to death. God longs to be with us, to answer our needs, to bless us with his eternal comfort. We need him. And we need to turn to God and surrender our needs to him.
“Stay with me, Jesus”
But please keep in mind. We need God in ordinary times, too. How wonderful it is for us when we understand that we need to see him in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening. We need to realize our need for him every single moment of our lives. It is by our practice of reaching out to him in the great struggles of living that we teach ourselves how to need and reach out to him in the small things of daily life.
This is one of the great lessons of Padre Pio. We had the wonderful experience of relics of St. Pio of Pietrelcina being brought to St. Paul Cathedral this past April and in 2017. St. Pio was born May 25, 1887, in Italy. He entered the Capuchin order at 15 years old, taking the name Pio. He was ordained a priest in 1910 at age 23. During his lifetime, Padre Pio became known as a healer and confessor. He bore the stigmata, wounds on the forehead, hands, wrists and feet that correspond to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus. Padre Pio died in 1968, and he was canonized by Pope St. John Paul the Great in 2002.
A good friend with a deep devotion to St. Pio recently reminded me how close the saint felt every day to God through Jesus. Every day after early Mass, St. Pio would say a very simple prayer: “Stay with me, Jesus. I need you.” It was his daily litany, repeated over and over again throughout the day. “Stay with me, Jesus. I need you.”
I’d like to suggest that we adopt St. Pio’s practice. Let’s make it our daily prayer. We need to come before the Lord every day. We need to express how much we absolutely need God every moment of our lives.
“Stay with me, Jesus. I need you.” Truly an endearing and enduring experience of 9/14.