May I Always Be Worthy of His Calling
Monsignor Robert J. Romano
I was ordained by Bishop Francis J. Mugavero on May 28, 1977. I have served in a parish my entire priestly life at St. Rosalia-Regina Pacis, St. Anselm, St. Jude, St. Edmund, St. Bernadette and now Our Lady of Guadalupe, all in Brooklyn. I have been a Pastor for over twelve years and a NYPD Chaplain for over ten years. During that time I have celebrated countless number of Masses, baptized hundreds of babies, married many couples, attended the sick at home and the hospital and visited the children in our parish school and religious education program. I guess you can say I do the normal, yet important work of any priest. My life as a priest was ordinary until one fateful day that has changed my life.
Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, started out as a beautiful crisp and clear day. I was getting ready to celebrate a Funeral Mass when I heard something on the radio about a plane and the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV to see what was happening. I was shocked at what I saw. I changed from my clerical clothes into my NYPD work uniform. I knew I had to get to the site right after the funeral. As I celebrated Mass, I noticed a lot of commotion in the rear of the church. The funeral director was in and out of the building. As I completed the funeral and reached the doors of the church, I was told about the second plane in the WTC and the planes in Washington and Pennsylvania. They also told me about the collapse of the buildings. I expressed my condolences to the family and they told to "go and help those poor people.”
I returned to the rectory and called the local precinct for a police car to get me to the site. Within a few short minutes I heard the siren approaching and was sped to Manhattan. As we drove on the highway leading to Manhattan we could see the smoke cloud that had enveloped the city. It was very eerie. I reported to a fire house in Greenwich Village which was the temporary seat of the city government. I met with Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Kerick and asked what they would like me to do. “Check the hospitals,” they both said. The Commissioner gave me one of his cars and one of his drivers that day. We went to Bellevue Hospital which was empty. No patients had been brought there. We sped to St. Vincent’s Hospital. There was only one cop there who got stitches in his hand. The cop told us that it was horrible downtown. I looked at the driver; not a word was said; we know where we had to be.
As we got closer, the dust in the air blocked out the sun. The sound was muffled because of all the material that was in the air. The sight and the lack of sound reminded me of the words of the Passion: “darkness covered the whole world.” We got two surgical masks to help us breathe. They were useless. We were then confronted by what continually invades my dreams – the carnage, the destruction and the death. I caught sight of my classmate, Msgr. John Delendick, the Fire Department Chaplain. He had a far-away look on his face. He told me that hundreds of fire fighters were unaccounted for and feared dead. He also told me that Father Mychal Judge, a fire chaplain, had been killed. Reality hit like a ton of bricks. I told him I had to go and check on the cops. I started to find out that many of the cops I knew were among the dead. I found out, as the hours passed, that a college seminary classmate, several of my former altar boys and my Godson also perished that day.
September 11th was going to be the most significant event in my priestly life. I went to Police Headquarters, where a temporary Family Center had been started. It was there that families would find out if their loved ones were okay, injured, missing or dead. It was difficult to be supportive, especially to the families I knew, but I had to be positive and optimistic. We prayed and we began something that had never happened before in Headquarters - daily Mass. Each morning all the chaplains celebrated Mass for the families who basically lived in the auditorium of Headquarters. After Mass I would make the rounds and distribute Holy Communion to the cops in the Emergency Operation Center and Operations unit. They worked twelve-hour shifts and could not leave their posts. It was a sight to behold.
Besides the Masses at Headquarters, I realized that the cops out at “Ground Zero” had to be ministered to also. From the first Sunday after the attack to the day the last piece of steel was removed from the “the pit,” I celebrated Mass on every Sunday and Holy Day for the families and members of the Emergency Service Unit at “Ground Zero”. Each Sunday the Commissioner and Chief of the Department would attend. The numbers grew. Faith was on the rise. Mass was brief, it had to be to accommodate the rescue shift that was finishing and the one that was about to start. I would tell them, “Give me 22 minutes and I’ll give you our faith.”