Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9/11: Baseball and "Victim 0001" as Sacraments

What is a sacrament?  A visible sign of an invisible grace.  Many Catholics may answer this question by naming one of the seven Sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, etc.  These formal sacraments (designated by a capital “S”) are ways “Christ now acts to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church: Second Edition 1084) In light of today, 9/11, I would like to recognize Fr. Mychal Judge and baseball—America’s pastime—as true sacraments (lowercase “S").

I began my classes today in the same way that I always do, with prayer.  Only today’s prayer also served as an introduction for all but one of my students to Mychal Judge, OFM.  I read an excerpt from “Friar Jack’s E-spiration” about the man who has been designated “Victim 0001;” a man I view as a sacrament.

Jack Wintz, OFM writes
Father Mychal worked with homeless people and AIDS patients. A recovering alcoholic, he also devoted much time to recovering addicts. The role for which he is best remembered is chaplain to the New York City Fire Department.

On September 11, 2001, Father Mychal rushed from his friary at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street to the scene of the World Trade Center attacks. He was just doing his job.

After anointing a firefighter, Father Mychal was hit by falling debris and killed. He was 68 years old. He became the first officially recorded fatality following the attack. Many of us have likely seen the iconic photo of him being carried away from the rubble by several fire fighters and others. (There’s a Waterford Crystal sculpture of this image mounted outside the firehouse were he worked across from his friary on 31st Street.)
I asked my students to pray with that photo.  Many consider it to a modern day “pieta.” Michaelangelo’s Pieta depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion.
How was Father Mychal and other "first-responders" Christ-like?  What is their message for us today?

We concluded our prayer with Fr. Mychal’s favorite.  His brothers say that the prayer characterized his approach to all he did.

Lord, take me where you want me to go;
let me meet who you want me to meet;
tell me what you want me to say;
and keep me out of your way.

Was his life a visible sign of an invisible grace?  I think so.

For baseball purists, thinking about baseball as a sacrament is easy.  For those that question the connection between Sports and Spirituality, however, putting such power in a simple game may be more than a stretch.  Is it sacrilegious?  I believe the HBO video Nine Innings From Ground Zero answers that question. 

For the Amazon review, Tom Keogh writes
In the days following terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, sports might have seemed trivial and irrelevant. But Nine Innings from Ground Zero demonstrates how New Yorkers, in fact, embraced baseball with a cathartic passion, turning Yankees and Mets games into spontaneous rituals of grief and showcases for resilience and the restoration of normalcy. Off the field, both teams found a way to comfort the city to the extent they could, visiting firefighters and relatives of the dead; the Yankees' Derek Jeter personally reached out to the young daughter of one of the pilots killed by hijackers. The Yankees' ride to the World Series that year is covered extensively here, and the team's up-and-down dramas playing against Phoenix coincide with such off-field horrors as an anthrax scare and more warnings of terrorism. Outstanding game footage and interwoven analysis of baseball action and real-world events make Nine Innings unique. 
Baseball became communal gathering places.  The physical act of going to a game was cathartic for those who mourned.  For example, one man named Kieran lost not one but his two brothers.  Although he went to Game 5 of the World Series alone, he said just to “step into Yankee Stadium was a connection to my brothers that I had been missing so badly.” 

President Bush was told two things.
1. Throw from the mound
2. Throw a strike.
He did both.
Baseball provided a venue where people were free to forget their sadness for a few hours; others found a place to express their hope and fears.  Even the President took a great risk in showing up for the first World Series game in the Bronx.  Replete in a bulletproof vest and with a secret service agent dressed as an umpire, George W. Bush did everything in his power to throw a strike, from the mound.  He did.  This small gesture, albeit an important tradition, said: “we will not surrender our freedom.”

Profiles of crazy fans, selfless firefighters, ballplayers like Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius, to a real “Guardian Angel” help us understand how we survived this incredibly tragic era.  Mayor Giuliani concedes “the only two things that got my mind off of it for any period of time in the Fall of 2011, were baseball and my son’s football games.” In one press conference, he said, “There is one thing that I’ve been really missing, and I’m going to break down tonight.  I’m going to a Met game.”  Baseball with its ritual and tradition, its beauty and its grace was a balm for many.  It helped many more people than just New Yorkers cope and mourn.  It helped America.

The Yankees did not win the 2011 World Series.  But the road to it and all seven games of the World Series with its highs and lows, memories and music helped me understand what a sacrament does—it causes what it signifies.  Community, remembrance, celebration, and thanksgiving.  TODAY is the day for just that.

You can watch an excerpt at

Photo Credits

President Bush throws a "K"
Baseball stadium
Nine Innings From Ground Zero
Modern Day Pieta
Guardian Angel
Special Thanks to my producer/director Sean Lawhon for sharing "Nine Innings..." with me

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