In a few weeks, as a nation, we will recall the horrible events that took place on September 11, 2001 when terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York City, attacked the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and caused the crash of United Airlines flight 93 in an open field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. In a few weeks, our television sets, social media, newspapers, and radio stations will remind us of that sad day sixteen years ago when Americans and the world held their collective breaths as thousands of people lost their lives to hatred and nonsensical violence. It amazes me to think that on that terrible day, the majority of you who are standing right here in front of me in this central patio were not even born yet, but its impact is still very much a part of your daily lives.
Two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-six people died because of the 9-11 attacks: 2-9-9-6. This morning I want to speak to you about the individual designated Victim 0001. His name was Mychal Judge. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he was 68 years old when he ran into the burning buildings of the World Trade Center to offer help. Something else you may not know about Mychal Judge is that he was a Catholic priest, a Franciscan friar, who for several years served as chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. When on that dreaded morning policemen and firemen were called to the scene, Fr. Judge put on his fire gear and rode to the site and made his way into the very bowels of hell. Without any concern for his own personal safety, without thinking much about the danger, he ran alongside hundreds of brave men and women into the fire to help put it out, to help relieve, to help save.
At a moment of incredible fear and confusion, while thousands of people were running away from the burning buildings, Fr. Judge ran to the fire. Shortly after entering the lobby of the World Trade Center’s North tower, Fr. Judge began to assist the victims and pray with them when debris from the South Tower struck him in the head and killed him. Although many people had been killed before him, he was the first certified fatality because his was the first body to be recovered and taken to the medical examiner. Many of us still remember that now famous photograph of five men, covered in soot and ash, carrying the lifeless body of this selfless priest.
I’m not asking WHY did the terrorist attack New York City, Washington DC or Somerset County. I’m not asking WHY so many people have to die in such a horrible way. I’m not even asking WHY an all-powerful, unconditionally loving God, allows such horror to take place. My question is, why would a man who is safe and out of danger run to it? Why would he run to the problem? Why would he run to the fire?
Let me give you another example.
In 2011 Joe Arroyo, a Colombian musician, released a song titled “Rebelión.” It tells the story of the brutal reality of slavery in Cartagena, Colombia in the 1600s. The 1600s was the height of the European slave trade when hundreds of slave ships would dock in the harbor of this coastal city and bring tens of thousands of African slaves. I don’t have to tell you that the conditions in these ships were deplorable. To maximize profit and efficiency, captured African men, women, and children were forced to lie in long rows in the hull of the ship, chained to one another, with very little food, water, or ventilation. Throughout the long sea journey hundreds died and were simply tossed overboard. Many who made it arrived sick, dehydrated, and malnourished.
In 1610, a young man from Catalonia, Spain by the name of Peter Claver arrived in Cartagena. He was a Jesuit priest whose mission initially was to simply preach the faith to the Spanish and native Colombians. But when he arrived what he saw angered him and left him greatly disturbed. Even though Pope Paul III in 1547 had issued a papal decree denouncing slavery as “supreme villainy,” it was such a lucrative business that it continued to flourish. Fr. Claver quickly realized that what God had called him to, in this mission, went far beyond preaching and celebrating mass.
Every morning he would sit on the dock of the port waiting for the slave ships to arrive. When they pulled in, while hundreds of people clamored to run off the ship, he would run in. He would make his way down into the hull with food and water and begin to tend to the needs of the slaves. He would pay doctors to accompany him so they could tend to the sick and the dying. He would unlock their chains, defying the orders of the slave-traders, and cover their sores with oil and aloe. He would gently carry the dead, one by one, out of the dark recesses of these floating coffins, administer the sacrament of last rites, and then bury them in a dignified manner.
When Fr. Claver celebrated mass, he would use the pulpit as an opportunity to speak out loudly against slavery and the mistreatment of the African people. He wrote letters to the kings of Spain, Portugal and France, chastised heartless slave-traders and owners, appealed to the colonists to fight against the evil of slavery, and encouraged religious orders, including his own, to send more priests and brothers to work with these poorest of the poor. His work became so legendary that he was given the title, “Fr. Peter Claver, the slave of the slaves.”
One day, after working for hours aiding the sick and the dying, Fr. Calver contracted a disease that left him bedridden. A few weeks later, he died. He was 74 years old. It is said that in the forty years that Fr. Peter Claver worked in Cartagena, he helped over 300,000 slaves upon their arrival in Colombia. In recognition of his great and heroic work, he was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888 and quickly proclaimed the patron saint of all slaves and the patron saint of Colombia.
So once again the question… why? Why would a man whose origin and education provided for him comfort and safety, run towards discomfort and danger? Why would he run to the problem, run to the conflict, why would he run to the fire?
At the graduation mass for the class of 2017, I preached a homily inspired by an article I read titled, “10 Leadership Lessons I Learned Living on a Nuclear Submarine.” It was written by Jon Rennie, President and CEO of a corporation that produces materials for utility companies around the world. In the article, Rennie says that his first job out of college was working on a nuclear submarine. He would spend 540 days at a time underwater for five years and each time was accompanied by 150 other sailors. Rennie wrote that one of the first things you learn when working on a nuclear sub is that if there is a fire, you run to it; you run to the fire. The reason is simple, if you don’t put out the fire quickly, everyone is at risk.
These words that I read over and over again in Rennie’s article and that I preached to the graduating class of 2017, made me think that it should be the theme for our 2017-2018 academic year. This year, I want you to focus on one thing… run to the fire. You will remember that last year at this time I stood before you and said that our theme was Esto Vir, to be a man. Well, if you want to know how to be a man, you need to run to the fire.
This is what I mean.
Let your minds run to math, science and history in order to meet head on your studies and acquire the knowledge that will help you run companies, resolve problems, and lead organizations. This will help make our world a safer more just place. Let your hands and feet run to service in order to meet head on the needs of others, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick or imprisoned, so that the world becomes a more equitable place where the poor and the less fortunate are not ignored. Let your hearts run to God in order to meet head on the One who is the true and only source of love and life and joy. Gentlemen, I encourage you to pray, go to mass, visit the chapel, go on retreats and encounters, deepen your relationship with God so that the world, in turn, can experience Him through you and understand that God’s greatest desire is for men and women to live a life of grace. Remember the words of President Ronald Reagan who once said that, “if we ever forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”
I have already spoken to our administration, faculty and staff and have challenged them to run to the fire. I have encouraged them to take charge of their classrooms, their lessons, and their school. I have asked them to run to the fire by not simply waiting for others to do things, but for them to take the initiative and do it themselves. Now I speak to you, all 1,478 of you who stand here in this central patio. Do not listen to people that tell you to stay safe, make yourself comfortable, secure your future as the world around you burns in the fires of hate, injustice, and terror. No, run to the fire and help put it out. Be the solution. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You do it. Don’t run away from your problems or the challenges in your life. Run to them and face them head on. You are in a school and surrounded by a group of people who will help you, will guide you, will put out the fire right alongside you.
You see this awesome image of Jesus Christ behind me. Take a look at his heart. He points to it. You will notice that his heart is enflamed with the love that he has for you. Look at his other hand. From the wound comes the fire of his love and it points to you, it points to me. That is the grace he offers us. To be a school filled with the desire to live our lives not for ourselves, but for others. Jesus is the greatest example of a man who ran to the fire. Where there was a need, he filled it. Where there was a problem, he resolved it. Where there was an illness, he cured it. Where there was an injustice, he denounced it. Where there was a challenge, he faced it. Remember the question I asked earlier? Why did men like Fr. Mychal Judge or St. Peter Claver run to the fire? They ran because of Jesus Christ.
To the fire of his heart, I ask you gentlemen to run as well.
Have a great year.