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The cross at Ground Zero

The WaPo has a good piece today about the cross found at Ground Zero, and what it came to mean to the men working on the pile. Excerpt:

The shape was oddly identifiable in the blasted wreckage of the World Trade Center, standing upright amid beams bent like fork tines and jagged, pagan-seeming tridents. A grief-exhausted excavator named Frank Silecchia found it on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the terrorist attacks. A few days later, he spoke to a Franciscan priest named Father Brian Jordan, who was blessing remains at Ground Zero.

“Father, you want to see God’s House?” he asked. “Look over there.”

Father Brian peered through the fields of shredded metal. “What am I looking for?” he asked. Silecchia replied, “Just keep looking, Father, and see what you see.”

“Oh my God,” Father Brian said. “I see it.”

As Father Brian stared, other rescue workers gathered around him. There was a long moment of silence as he beheld what he considered to be a sign. Against seeming insuperable odds, a 17-foot-long crossbeam, weighing at least two tons, was thrust at a vertical angle in the hellish wasteland. Like a cross.

Ever since the two jets had slammed into the twin towers on Sept. 11, leaving 2,753 dead, Father Brian had been asked by countless New Yorkers, “Why did God do this?” He would reply tartly, in his Brooklyn-born accent: “It had nuttin’ to do with God. This was the actions of men who abused their free will.” Now here was God explaining Himself. It was a revelation, proof that “God had not abandoned Ground Zero,” even as the awful excavations continued.

Silecchia said worriedly, “Father, they might put this in some dump heap.”

“Frankie, no,” Father Brian said. “No, they will not.”

As far as I know, I was the first journalist to write about Frank Silecchia and the Ground Zero cross. I was a New York Post columnist at the time. I received a phone call one day from my uncle, a Lutheran FBI chaplain, who was down on the pile working just days after the attack. Calling from Ground Zero, he told me that a construction worker had found a cross standing erect on a pile of twisted metal. My uncle had seen it, and said it was an incredible site. Grief-stricken rescuers and construction workers overwhelmed by the enormity of the destruction were making pilgrimages to the cross to pray, he told me. You’ve got to get down here, he said.

My uncle arranged for Frank to meet me just outside the Ground Zero site. And that’s how I met one of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever had the privileged of knowing, however fleetingly.Frank was a mountain of a man. Seriously big. He must have been 6’4″, and about half as wide. But a gentle giant. Frankie and I sat down, and he told me about how he had stumbled upon the fallen steel beams, and had established it as a place of prayer and pilgrimage. He talked about how there was a police commander (or maybe a fire chief — I forget) whose son, also a cop or a firefighter, was missing in the pile. The man was overcome by grief and anger. Frankie led him to the cross, and the grieving father wept, and was reconciled to God.

Frankie told me that once upon a time, he had a good family life, but he threw it all away on drugs and selfish living. Somehow, he had come to Jesus, and turned his life around. He was now a faithful Christian, and wanted to reach out to help other lost and suffering souls.

This giant of a man, covered with sweat and grime and filth, working in Hell to pull the lost out of the pit. If that’s not a sign of God’s love, even more than the cross Frankie found, I don’t know what is. May God bless and keep Frankie, wherever he is today.

More from the WaPo:

Instead, as the 10th anniversary of the attacks nears, the “World Trade Cross” continues to occupy a central if controversial place at Ground Zero. Shortly after its discovery, Father Brian persuaded city officials to allow a crew of volunteer union laborers to lift it out of the wreckage by crane and mount it on a concrete pedestal. They placed it in a quiet part of the site, on Church Street, where on Oct. 3, 2001, Father Brian blessed it with the prayer of St. Bonaventure. “May it ever compass Thee, seek Thee, find Thee, run to Thee . . . ” When he finished, the crane operators sounded their horns, a choral blast.

Each week, Father Brian held services there. He became the chaplain of the hard hats. Whenever crews working to find the dead needed a blessing or a prayer or absolution, Father Brian would offer it. Sometimes victims’ families came to pray. The congregations grew from 25 or 35 to 200 and 300.

Men cut replicas of the cross out of ruined steel and carried them in their pockets. Even Rich Sheirer, then New York’s director of the Office of Emergency Management and a self-described “short, round Jewish guy,” appreciated the cross. “Intellectually, you knew it’s just two pieces of steel, but you saw the impact it had on so many people, and you also knew it was more than steel,” he says. Sheirer has a picture of it standing in the wreckage, as well as a small steel cutout given to him for a keepsake by the September 11th Families’ Association.

Father Brian says: “We had Jews, Muslims, Buddhists. People who believed or didn’t believe. It was a matter of human solidarity. Whether you believed was irrelevant. We needed some type of fellowship down there, other than working.”

This is what militant atheists — the kind who have filed suit to keep the Ground Zero Cross out of any official memorialization of 9/11 — never understand, and cannot understand: the need for human solidarity, especially in the midst of excruciating trial, and how religious symbols, more than any other, give a sense of transcendent peace and order, and the presence of the divine against all apparent evidence. People need that. That atheist militants seek to deny them that based on their own abstractions reveals the deep inhumanity, indeed hatred of things human, that is at the core of so much vocal atheism today. It is one thing to disbelieve in God. It is quite another to seek to destroy God in the hearts of men.

Religion gave us Mohammed Atta. But it also gave us Frank Silecchia.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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