Cardinal Egan remembers 9/11

The man who was the most visible spiritual leader to New York’s Roman Catholics on September 11, 2001 is sharing his memories of that day with the AP:

Cardinal Edward Egan was eating breakfast when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani called to say there was a tragedy and the churchman was needed. A police car would soon be outside the chancery to take the leader of New York’s Roman Catholics downtown.

Egan didn’t know exactly what had happened in lower Manhattan that morning as he and his priest-secretary hurtled through the city. He couldn’t decipher the crackle of the police radio and didn’t have access to news. Giuliani first said he was sending Egan to provide support at a makeshift morgue on the city piers, then redirected the cardinal to St. Vincent’s Hospital, so he could tend the injured.

Within 90 minutes, Egan would be standing in the doorway of St. Vincent’s looking south to Wall Street as the World Trade Center crumbled. He would spend the next several days anointing the dead, distributing rosaries to workers as they searched, mostly in vain, for survivors, and presiding over funerals, sometimes three a day.

“For about five or six years, monsignor and I wouldn’t talk to anybody about it,” said Egan, referring to his priest-secretary, Monsignor Gregory Mustaciuolo, who was with him in the days following the attacks. “It was too much of a horror.”

Egan had been appointed New York archbishop the year before 9/11. He succeeded the late Cardinal John O’Connor, a stand-out personality even in a city full of them, who became the most forceful Catholic voice in the national debates of his era.

Egan had worked as an auxiliary bishop under O’Connor, then as bishop in nearby Bridgeport, Conn. But his tenure as archbishop would be decidedly different. An often stern, 6-foot-4 Latin scholar who was fluent in several languages, he had to focus on internal church issues, taking on the unpopular task of fixing the financial problems his beloved predecessor left behind.

Still, the cardinal cared deeply about the civic and ceremonial duties that came with the job, the highest-profile religious position in the city.

Decades earlier, while serving under Chicago Cardinal John Cody, he recalled a moment during the 1968 riots there when he rode in a car with Cody and Mayor Richard J. Daley through the city’s West Side as it burned. Daley and Cody were crying.

“I saw it (9/11), and thought, ‘This has now happened to me,’” Egan said. .

When the cardinal arrived that morning at St. Vincent’s, he donned hospital scrubs, then along with the nuns, he waited.

He noticed that an intern nearby was trembling and asked what was wrong. The physician said his father worked on the 102nd floor of the north tower, so the cardinal suggested the two go into a side room and talk. The young man declined. “He said, ‘I am a doctor. The injured are coming. This is my place,’” Egan recalled. A couple of months later, Egan would recount this story to Pope John Paul II, who would send a check to the young physician to help cover his medical school costs.

The cardinal next remembers giant dust clouds appearing. People were running by, screaming, trying to stay ahead of the debris. At first, no one in St. Vincent’s knew the source of the mess. The police commander who was with Egan handed him a gas mask.

“I wore that gas mask for days,” Egan said. “When I would get home at night, I would have the rubber marks stuck on me. And I know that in some of the pictures of me in the cathedral, I had those marks.”

Given the news about how New York City’s present mayor is marking this anniversary, I have to wonder: who would Michael Bloomberg have called if he had been mayor then? 


  1. Seriously? Am I the only one who remembers that Egan got out of the city as soon as he could to go to meetings in Rome?

    It was the miserable start of a miserable tenure in NY.

  2. It is part of a cardinal’s duty to attend meetings in Rome.

  3. Sean, you are not the only one who remembers that the Cardinal flew to Rome two days after 9/11. It was unconscionable and left a bitter residue that would only compound the difficulty of the task before him in getting our financial house in order. Cardinal Egan could have sent one of his auxiliary bishops to stand in for him, or asked another American archbishop to go as a favor. Of all the popes in history, John Paul II would have understood. Instead, he was safe and snug a continent away while parks in Manhattan, sides of buildings, and lamp posts filled with missing persons flyers for the thousands who would never be found.

    His duty was to stay and shepherd his flock while military jets were flying protective air cover over New York City, a toxic plume was enveloping large swaths of land, the citizens were in a state of shock, distraught family members roamed the streets in desperate search of their loved ones, and thousands of his flock lay crushed beneath the rubble.

    Instead, he covered himself in cowardice and shame.

    It would be so much easier to tear Mayor Bloomberg apart for his 9/11 clergy bans if we could point to the pictures of Cardinal Egan’s daily presence at Ground Zero in those critical first two weeks, his daily masses there for the bulk of the first responders who happened to be Catholic, his constant presence comforting the first responders and victims’ families in the tents, the photos and videos of him consoling the city at the daily press conferences.

    We can’t, because he wasn’t here. He didn’t stand his post when standing his post meant everything. When he did come back from Rome, it was too late. The people knew all they needed to know about Cardinal Egan. He would spend the next decade performing a very unpleasant task unpleasantly.

  4. Cowardice and shame? Good grief.

  5. “Cardinal Egan could have sent one of his auxiliary bishops to stand in for him, or asked another American archbishop to go as a favor. Of all the popes in history, John Paul II would have understood.”

    Gerard: Are you saying that this quote in the rest of the article is not true?

    “Egan was the target of criticism when he left the grieving city for a Vatican synod, a month long international meeting of bishops convened by the pope. Egan, who was to work as an aide to John Paul in leading the meeting, said he asked repeatedly for permission to stay in New York, but the pope said Egan was needed in Rome. The cardinal now calls that time, when his loyalty to the city was questioned, “the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life.”

    ‘I feel that whatever grace I gained by going through that, I said to the Lord, use for anybody who was hurt in this tragedy,’ Egan said.”

  6. Gerard Nadal, what were the meetings Cardinal Egan went to? If they were of Vatican Congregations (and all Cardinals are members of several), he couldn’t send a delegate in his place. I expect that the meetings were of that nature.

    So the situation was that he was in Rome doing what only he could do, whereas, back in New York, other bishops and priests could have filled in and done all the things you say. So he should have shirked his duty for the sake of photo ops to endear himself to the public?”

    And what do you mean by “cowardice?” What danger was he fleeing?

  7. I’m saying that he could have waited for a week to ten days before going, sending another bishop armed with a cell phone to conference him in if any urgent input was needed. It was a month-long synod. What was the Pope going to do? Fire Egan?

    What good is a synod if it takes the leader of an archdiocese away from his people 48 hours after a catastrophe the scope of 9/11? Synods are meant to improve the ability of the Church to transmit and deepen faith. When the faith of New Yorkers and the nation was tested to its limit, that was the precise moment when Egan took off for a synod. Can we say self-defeating?

    At the supreme moment of truth for a traumatized region, the Cardinal went to a month-long meeting in Rome, when he was still new to the diocese, an untested and unproven quantity. The rest of his tenure speaks to the disastrous pastoral consequences of that course of action.

  8. Ah, a synod. That’s different from a meeting of a Congregation. It may have been poor judgment to go so soon. OTOH, one of the themes at the time was that we should not let terrorism disrupt our lives. But on balance it seems he could have made a better decision.

  9. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Reality check:

    According to the article, Egan said that he appealed to the pope to stay in New York, but the pope said he was needed in Rome, so Egan obeyed.

    If that’s true, the cardinal didn’t have much choice in the matter.

    I was never a big Egan fan, but let’s cut the guy a little slack.

    A few weeks ago, armchair theologians with a laptop were dumping all over Corapi for being disobedient, and here they’re dumping all over Egan for being obedient.

    Good grief.

    Dcn. G.

  10. I blame the pope, and the Church. Part of the reason that a bishop has authority over a diocese is that he BELONGS to them. A bishop is not just an “assistant pope” — the opposite is true — the pope is first among bishops, but first he IS a bishop.

    The ONLY acceptable circumstance where the pope could REQUIRE the presence of a bishop when that bishop’s people needed him so badly is if he had flown over himself to take the bishop’s place.

  11. Bruce Tereski says:

    Thanks Dcn. Kandra for your statement.
    Card. Egan was the “relator” of the synod. He had been entrusted with preparing for that for months. He was pratically irreplaceable. It’s not like someone could have winged his duties.
    Meanwhile, bishops from all over the world were scheduled to be there. To cancel the synod would have been another victory for terrorism. It would have also been costly especially for 3rd world bishops who had already made travel plans.

  12. O’Connor or Dolan Never would have left, PERIOD.

  13. ed:

    You may be right. But how do you know for sure?

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