(Note: This homily was delivered during a Blue Mass this morning honoring our local police and firefighters on the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2011)
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)
Why does the lost sheep wander far from the shepherd? Quite simply, because the sheep forgets what the shepherd’s voice sounds like, forgets that the shepherd leads us to green pastures, and forgets that the shepherd brings us peace. The lost sheep goes in search of greener pastures which are illusions, distractions, and could ultimately lead to the sheep’s demise. But the shepherd goes in search of the lost one anyways putting the rest in peril. Such is God’s love for us.
This morning, we are honored to have members of the City of Hialeah Police and Fire Departments with us as we commemorate this somber anniversary of the attacks on our nation 15 years ago today. Many brave men and women risked their lives in search of the defenseless when they bravely ran into those burning towers on that fateful Tuesday morning. Today we gather not only to remember the victims, particularly your comrades in the New York and Port Authority Police and Fire Departments, but also to honor their heroic sacrifice. Their examples of courage and selflessness are surely held up in every precinct and fire house as what exemplary police officers, fire fighters, and first responders should be. Fifteen years have passed, but the pain is still there. It is still raw. I can vividly remember my brother calling me, two weeks from graduating from the fire academy, while all of us watched those towers burn. I can still remember his voice of horror yelling at the TV, “They can’t go in there! They can’t go in there!” And even though he wasn’t officially a firefighter yet, he mourned those brave men and women that ran towards the towers. One of the iconic images in the aftermath of the attack was the three firefighters hoisting the American flag in the midst of the rubble of Ground Zero. I made two copies of that photograph. One I gave to my brother as a present when he graduated from the academy. The other still sits on a bookshelf in my office as a reminder not only of this date but that I must always pray for those who protect us.
Fifteen years ago it took the most tragic event of our lifetime to realize what all of you do for us each and every day. That you put your lives between danger and those you are charged to protect during every shift. And for the police officers present, you had to endure a trying summer as many questioned your service. You deserve better, and for this we apologize. As I saw with my brother and the countless friends and parishioners who serve in law enforcement or stand guard in a firehouse, I have learned over the past 15 years that all of you are wired differently. How else do you explain your comrades running towards those towers? Your courage and strength are what drive you and what we honor this day. Yet as I saw in my brother and in countless friends and parishioners who wear the uniform, I know that this call to protect can also be a burden that is far too difficult to carry alone. You are witnesses to unspeakable tragedies, horrific scenes that none of us see precisely because you are protecting us. All of you know far too well that criminals and fires aren’t the only things that can cost your comrades their lives, silent killers like PTSD that claimed my brother’s life also pose a great danger to your ranks. Your burden, your pains should not be carried alone. Like the sheep that wanders far off and puts its life at risk away from the shepherd, you are being chased by the Good Shepherd who loves you and seeks to protect you.
Today this community of faith gathers to honor you and pray for you on this most solemn of days. And as we pray for you, I urge you to seek out the voice of the Good Shepherd, the voice of God that calls out to you so that you may never have to walk the beat or ride the truck alone. Because my brother wore your uniform, albeit for a different city, I still feel a certain responsibility to our civil servants. Know that here in Immaculate you always have a place of refuge—a place where you can come to unload your sorrows and place them at the feet of our Lord. Many of your comrades in New York 15 years ago finished long shifts and would walk into churches near Ground Zero with ashy uniforms to try to process what they had just witnessed. They knew they couldn’t do it alone. And know that I am always here to listen to your burdens. I will not turn you away, not only because I am a priest, but because I am the brother of a firefighter who lost a fight to PTSD. I now implore you to not let this silent killer touch you so that your families don’t have to go through what my family went through. Talk to me. Talk to someone. But don’t stay silent. It doesn’t make you any less of a man or woman if your share your burdens with someone. It just makes you stronger, makes you more courageous and makes you a better civil servant. There’s a slogan that was used at PTSD fundraiser that I attended last year that applies to all of us that are called to serve and to be strong: “The worst part about being strong is that no one ever asks if you’re ok.” And so the Lord seeks you out this morning and hoists you on His strong shoulders and asks you if you are ok. We are made stronger in numbers, and we are made stronger when our God finds us like he finds the lost sheep and hold us in his arms.
On this September 11th, we thank you for your service and bravery and pray for all of you. This community is here to remind you that you are being prayed for and it always stands with those who protect us. No matter what happened 15 years ago, and no matter how many things you may endure in the line of duty, your God is always by your side. May the St. Michael the Archangel always defend you and protect. May God bless the City of Hialeah Police and Fire Departments, and on this day may God bless this great nation that you have sworn to protect.