The September 2014 Chaplain's Corner

By Pastor Gary Cortese, Chaplain – Byron Fire District

My article this month is a bold and honest commitment to remembering the ones we promised to never forget.

Osama Bin Laden said, “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.” On the morning of September 11, 2001, life and death collided.

New York City Fire Department Chaplain Father Mychal Judge received this message: “I think they need you.” Needing a Chaplain quickly usually means death or extreme distress. Father Judge donned his turnout coat and helmet, rushed across the street to the Engine 1 and Ladder 24 firehouse, and rode downtown with two of his men - members of his “congregation.”

I myself received a phone call on that bright autumn morning and was told, “I think we’re under attack!” Members of my own congregation here in Byron needed me, their pastor, to be strong. Turning on the news, my mind wasn’t catching up to my eyes. My wife and I had been in those towers and on the streets of New York City more times than we can remember. This isn’t supposed to happen. Not here; not to the towering symbols of America’s global dominance.

And who can forget the images of the tragedy and heroism in Arlington, Virginia when the Pentagon was attacked? Just as poignant - and unbelievably selfless, is the bravery aboard United Flight 93 as passengers prevented the terrorists from crashing into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.


Although I didn’t know Father Judge personally, I was deeply moved. The Chaplain had removed his helmet and knelt beside a firefighter to give last rites when falling debris struck him in the head. The images of his lifeless body being carried away from the scene are branded in my memory. A true shepherd had lay down his life for the sheep. I was taught this precept while preparing for the pastorate; but now it was demonstrated – literally, on national television.

Life and death collide when 343 firefighters walked into the doomed towers to save people they didn’t know…and never walked out. The ultimate sacrifice was also made by members of New York City’s Police Department, Port Authority Police, EMS workers and court officers. For New York City’s Bravest and Finest, they were “just doing their job.” But they are examples of true shepherds as well.

Firefighters and police officers faithfully report for “another day on the job” with the knowledge that there exists the chance they may not return home.

I am convinced that theirs is a “call” much like mine as a minister…and like that of Father Judge. Theirs is a “sacred duty” ordained to help others in a life filled with pain and evil. Regardless of your personal beliefs, and politics aside, the office of firefighter, paramedic and police officer is a gift given to man. It is a divine office being fulfilled by humans.

Ground Zero will always be remembered for unspeakable evil manifested. But it’s important to remember also that New York City’s firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers conducted a massive rescue operation - saving multiple thousands of lives. This is an example of a divine call.

President Bush delivered a speech to the nation shortly after 9/11, and raised the badge of Port Authority police officer, George Howard, and said, “This is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end.” Officer Howard had rushed to the scene - on his day off - to help guide citizens to safety. He never returned home; another example of a shepherd’s love.

The post 9/11 reality check for the U.S. is that there are people who don’t share our world view. But more than that is the fact of how dangerous and extremely dedicated these people are to destroying western civilization. On a major network news interview, Osama Bin Laden said, “…we do not distinguish between [Americans in] uniform or civilians. We anticipate a black future for America.”
While men and women in military uniforms lay down their lives on distant shores to protect us and defend our way of life, men and women in police and fire uniforms may be called upon to do the same. This is a reminder that love is better than hate; truth better than deception; and sadly, the uniforms will always remind us that in this life some must die so that others can live. We will never forget.