September 17, 2021

High school students encouraged to ‘never forget’ during 9/11 memorial Mass

Father John McCaslin, pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis and a chaplain for the Indianapolis Fire Department, preaches a homily during a Sept. 10 Mass at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Father John McCaslin, pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis and a chaplain for the Indianapolis Fire Department, preaches a homily during a Sept. 10 Mass at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

Two large ladder trucks from the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) were parked in front of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis on the morning of Sept. 10.

A large American flag that flew from their ladders extended far above the entrance to the school. Dozens of IFD firefighters had come to Bishop Chatard to pay tribute in prayer to the first responders who gave their lives to help others after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It was similar to many Masses celebrated in Indianapolis during the past 20 years around the date of Sept. 11. In recent years, the liturgies have been celebrated at Catholic high schools for an important reason.

“The students today were not born in 2001,” said IFD battalion chief Howard Stahl, who helped organize this year’s Mass on behalf of the Emerald Society, a fraternal organization of Indianapolis firefighters. “To have the fire department connection along with the spiritual reflection, we hope to increase the awareness of the sacrifice from that day and make it more than just a day in history.”

Before the Mass started, Stahl spoke about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, reminding those gathered of its death toll, including the loss of 343 firefighters from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) at the World Trade Center.

“Pure evil and pure hate were met that day with pure love and goodness,” he said.

Stahl recalled the story of FDNY Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown, who led the 11 firefighters of Ladder 3 into the World Trade Center’s north tower soon after the attacks.

After the south tower collapsed, all firefighters in the north tower were commanded to evacuate.

Brown responded firmly by radio. “Negative. Ladder 3 refuses the order. We have too many injured people here. We’re not leaving them. We’re on 35. This is truck 3, and we’re still heading up.”

“That was his final transmission,” said Stahl. “Soon the north tower would collapse, and everyone remaining was lost. We pray today that Paddy Brown, his crew and all the souls kept heading up all the way to God’s arms. We remember them with a simple phrase, ‘Never forget.’ ”

‘Christ was there’

Father John McCaslin, pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis and an IFD chaplain, noted in his homily during the memorial Mass that Christianity began as an oral tradition where stories were passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth.

“Likewise, we need to pass down these stories [about 9/11],” Father McCaslin said. “It’s important that we remember.”

A vital part of the stories of 9/11 to remember the priest emphasized in his homily was the presence of Christ in the horror and heroism of that day.

“Even in the midst of the darkest moments, friends, Christ was there,” he said. “He was there in the many people in those buildings who comforted and supported each other even unto death.

“He was there in the countless first responders—firefighters, police officers, EMTs [emergency medical technicians] and others—who went up the stairs and didn’t come back down. He was there in the countless people, the hundreds of millions of people, who knelt down in prayer on that day in churches around the world.”

Speaking specifically to the students at the Mass, Father McCaslin encouraged them to strive to be today like the first responders who sacrificed themselves for others on 9/11.

“We need to respond and confront evil with love, generosity, selflessness—with prayer and faith,” he said. “I pray and hope that we never, ever experience something like 9/11 again. I do. I hope we all do. But if something horrible like that should happen, then we must confront it as apostles, bearing the light of Jesus.”

Father McCaslin told them of his confidence in them being able to follow the example of the first responders of 9/11.

“How can we be a light of hope, of healing in the midst of difficult times?” Father McCaslin asked. “How can we be a bearer of the Good News? This is our challenge. This is your challenge. You’re 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 [years old]. You’re filled with the Holy Spirit. You’ve been given the gifts of the Spirit to make a difference.

“As we remember those who are fallen, please, as disciples of Jesus, be like him on this day of remembrance of 20 years ago. Be committed, make a difference, transform the world and remember always. They were selfless. They served others. So can you. So can I.”

Bishop Chatard senior Arianna Chavis appreciated Father McCaslin’s message.

“We learn from what they did for us,” said Arianna of the first responders who died on 9/11. “We can continue to keep that inspiration so that we can reflect on what they did for us.”

She also was glad that so many IFD firefighters came to her school, “showing us how we can make a better effort to help each other.”

Honoring a Chatard graduate

The Sept. 10 Mass was also an occasion to pay tribute to Warren Smith, a 1990 Bishop Chatard graduate who went on to become an IFD firefighter.

He died in the line of duty in 2000 during a diving exercise. A plaque honoring Smith was given to school leaders after the Mass so that its students can remember the self-sacrifice of the school’s graduate.

Smith’s brother Marc Smith, a member of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis, attended the Mass.

“Throughout the years, I’ve known how they felt about him,” said Smith of the way IFD firefighters have honored his brother. “It means a great deal. To me, he was my big brother. But to see how other people see what kind of person he was is very fulfilling and uplifting.”

IFD battalion chief Dudley Taylor, who served with Warren Smith, spoke about his fallen comrade.

“Many may only remember the tragic day on which he lost his life,” said Taylor. “But we’re here today to remember and honor all the days of his life, especially those within Bishop Chatard High School. The lessons he learned at Bishop Chatard served him far beyond the confines of his classroom.”

‘We were all members of the FDNY’

Although firefighters in Indianapolis were far away from the terrorist attacks in New York, Arlington, Va., and Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001, that day lives on in their hearts, said Stahl, a member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis, in an interview with The Criterion.

“On Sept. 11th, 2001, we were all members of the FDNY,” he said. “We felt a very real, very emotional connection with what our brothers and sisters were going through. The horrors, the suffering, the fear and dread. Each of us I am sure asked what would we do if we were thrown into that situation.

“The members of the FDNY responded and led the way, going into a living hell and honoring the traditions of the fire service. Despite the odds and having a full clear picture of the dangers ahead, they kept climbing and reassuring civilians that the fire department was there, and they would handle the situation. So many people made it out by just a firefighter’s presence. We truly should never forget that.”

He was also grateful to the leaders at Bishop Chatard and other Catholic high schools for welcoming firefighters for the annual 9/11 memorial Masses.

“Opening their doors to us, allowing the fire department to participate in their worship services, gives us a continued feeling of healing and peace,” Stahl said. “Our nation and certainly our first responders will never be the same after 9/11, but to be able to come together to remember the sacrifice and pray helps us put one boot in front of the other and face whatever tomorrow may bring.

“Seeing the smiling young faces, hearing their songs, worshiping, brings a calm to an otherwise chaotic world we firefighters inhabit.” †

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