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photograph of BC students on September 11th, 2001

The news spread quickly that morning. The World Trade Center in New York City had been struck by two hijacked planes. The Pentagon had also suffered an attack. And another plane was down in Pennsylvania.

By 10:30 a.m., mailboxes on the Boston College campuses had been stuffed with notices, and bulletin boards, doors, walls, and stairwells had been plastered with flyers announcing that a special moment of prayer was planned for noon.

Thousands of students, faculty, and staff members assembled on O'Neill Plaza for the service. The warm September air was heavy and conversations were hushed. "How could this happen to us?" a student clutching a baseball cap asked his companion. Students hugged one another. Some spoke excitedly, having learned loved ones were safe. Others cried.

"I live in New York," said Eric Napoli '04. "It's pretty crazy over there. I've talked to most of my family and they're okay. But one of my uncles works in the area and we haven't heard from him yet. We're just hoping and praying that everything is all right." (His uncle, it turned out, was safe.) "I don't know what to think. It doesn't even seem real. I saw the footage and it just seems like a movie."

Virginia Lipscy, a first-year student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, talked about her brother, a student at NYU. "I'm worried about my family. The phone lines are down and cell phones are jammed. We've been e-mailing him like crazy. There's just no communication to New York. I don't know, I'm just trying to stay calm," she said.

A young man wearing a brand-new Superfan T-shirt and a dazed look stood alone. His backpack sagged from his shoulders and he gripped a cell phone in one hand. He kept looking at the phone, then away from it, then back.

Shortly after the Gasson tower bell struck noon for the 12th time, the service began. Director of Campus Ministry James D. Erps, SJ, stepped to the front of the stage that had been set up on short notice. Fr. Erps acknowledged a "day of sorrow." He asked the crowd to pray for the rescue workers, firefighters, and police officers working to save lives at the scene of the tragedy, and then he asked God to "take into Your arms with loving grace, those who have died."

Next, Campus Minister Rev. Howard McLendon '75 approached the microphone. "God alone is my rock and my salvation," he said. "Trust God at all times, my people."

Following McLendon was Campus Minister Melissa Kelley '91. "God, comfort all of us in our hour of trial, incomprehensible loss, and uncomprehending sorrow," said Kelley. "Be with our sisters and brothers on this campus, across the country, and around the world who are still waiting for answers."

The crowd then observed a moment of silence, which was flecked with an occasional sob. Afterwards the Liturgical Arts Group sang "Amazing Grace," and University President William P. Leahy, SJ, addressed the assembly. "The events of this morning are overwhelming. We cannot believe what we are seeing on our television screens. We may also feel fear inside us about what is going on," he said. "We gather in prayer, to be supportive for one another. We come here with heavy hearts. We don't know what the rest of the day will bring. But what can sustain us is our community bond and our faith. We will get through what we have to get through.

"We are," Leahy said, "one community. We have to keep working against hatred, terrorism, and sin, and remain respectful of all. Reach out."

Vice president for student affairs Cheryl Presley encouraged students to stay on campus and not go home. She urged everyone to look out for one another, and to call her office with the names of those who might be in need of support. Presley announced that a support center had been set up in Gasson 100 for members of the Boston College community directly affected by the tragedies. Professionals from University Counseling, the Boston College Critical Incident Response Team, Campus Ministry, and the Boston College Police Department would be on hand to sit with individual students and help them sort out information and try to contact loved ones thought to be missing. A telephone bank was set up in the basement of Gasson for students who couldn't get through on clogged or disrupted cell phone systems. After the prayer service ended, some two dozen students arrived at Gasson 100 anxiously looking for help.

Earlier in the morning, at a meeting of administrators in the president's office, the decision had been made to hold afternoon classes as scheduled, in order to provide students with a forum where, in small groups, they could begin to process the day's events. And so, at 1:30 p.m., 28 students, most of them sophomores and juniors, streamed into Campion 303 for Associate Professor John McDargh's theology class, "The Religious Quest."

McDargh opened the class as he always does, with 10 minutes of silent meditation, punctuated on either end by three chimes of a small bell. After the meditation, students one by one voiced their questions, fears, sadness, and anger, guided by the occasional prod from the professor--"How do you understand the motive of people who would do this?" "How should we respond?"

Jon: "America was attacked today. Each and every one of us was attacked. I came to class today because I am confused. I can't understand the mind-set of some of these fundamentalist groups who could attack America in the name of a god they worship."

Joe: "Car bombs are reported in the paper every day. In Israel, in Afghanistan, in Ireland. But you don't notice them, because they don't happen here."

Matt: "We're not invincible. We're not as great as we think."

Kelly: "I feel afraid. Not for my personal safety, but of what's going on. It's just fear."

Joe: "When they blame us for death, they inflict death. When we blame them for death, we inflict death. But it's hard to understand the anger it takes to do something like this. America has definitely fallen off the pedestal in the eyes of the world."

Erin: "This might help us open our eyes and look at what we do to other people."

Brett: "I think the U.S. is a sign of hope. We're the most powerful nation in the world. I'm glad to be an American. I'm proud of it."

Liz: "As a country it's important for us to react in a thoughtful and peaceful manner."

Natalia: "Our faith and belief have never been tested before. We have to realize people are going to look back and say to us, 'What did you do?' We need to take this as our problem."

After more than 45 minutes of discussion, the class came to an end and students slowly filed back outside.

In Conte Forum that evening, at 7:30 p.m., some 4,000 students and other members of the Boston College community came together for a Mass of Hope, concelebrated by 36 priests. Fr. Erps opened the homily with a quote from John's Gospel.

"Let not your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God, have faith in me."

"We believe in the healing power of God," said Fr. Erps. "And how we need the healing power tonight. There is much in us that hurts." He continued with a prayer. "Be with us in our struggle. Help us to believe St. Paul's words: 'Who can separate us from the love of God--can disaster, or persecution or peril or the sword?' No, we overcome it all with Your help. We are BC. It is in times like these that we come to know most deeply who we are, what we value, and what we believe. It is in times like these that we reach out to friend and stranger alike; we reach out by word or touch or gesture; we reach out perhaps in our own confusion or pain to say to our neighbor, 'Let not your heart be troubled. Have faith in God, have faith in me.'"

As the Mass concluded, the congregants were invited to speak out loud the names of loved ones on their minds. As the names--of a brother, mother, uncle, friend--were called out, 4,000 Boston College students, faculty, and staff joined hands.

Catherine E. Burke

Photo: A moment of prayer at O'Neill Plaza on September 11. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

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