Charting change on ‘a dark day in the history of humanity’

Where were you on 9/11? 

The fact that question holds such power signals that for an entire generation of Americans (and many others around the world, too), the dramatic events of that day in some way mark a before-and-after point in their lives. 

For some, it caused a radical reevaluation of life choices up to that point, and the decision to go in a different direction. In this week’s issue don’t miss the testimony of ambitious-Wall-Street-trader-turned-mom-and-catechist (Page 8), or the 9/11-related vocation stories of two clerics and a religious woman (Pages 14-15). 

Even for those of us who didn’t consciously follow prompts to navigate a new life course because of the terrorist attacks, 9/11 has changed us, in greater or lesser degrees. And not just because we have to practice more patience in airport security checkpoints. 

I was in Rome on 9/11, working in the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service. The bureau chief, the senior correspondent and I were coming to the end of our work day, and received a shocked message from the international desk at our Washington, D.C., headquarters that “a small plane” had just crashed into the World Trade Center. At that point, it seemed like an accident by a disoriented pilot. 

We flipped on our rarely used small television and, if memory serves, witnessed live the image of the second plane crashing into the other tower. 

Maybe it is because we were safely an ocean away, or maybe it is because we quickly jumped into professional journalist mode, but I don’t remember feeling the fear that so many of my stateside friends and family have described to me. 

The next morning, less than 24 hours after the attack and with the World Trade Center site still billowing smoke and dust, Pope John Paul II held a radically altered weekly general audience. His entire talk focused on the attack, and, seemingly to underscore the importance of what he said, he spoke only in Italian and English (when he normally would have made remarks in a dozen languages). 

It was a fantastically beautiful fall day in Rome. St. Peter’s Square was bathed in sunshine, the massive fountains erupted in sparking light, and a gentle breeze swept through the colonnades. 

But the mood in the square was strikingly somber. I interviewed a number of Americans before the pope arrived, some of whom had obviously been weeping, and some who had yet to hear of the safety of friends or family in New York or Washington. 

The pontiff said the attacks marked “a dark day in the history of humanity.” At the end of the audience, he led prayers for the disaster’s victims and for the ultimate victory of reconciliation and peace. 

“Let us beg the Lord that the spiral of hatred and violence will not prevail,” he said. 

Where were you on 9/11, and how did it change you? Write