Who are your heroes? Who is it that inspires you in the daily endeavors of your life? With the challenges that life presents, all of us stand in need of inspiration in order to face the tasks at hand and to remain faithful to our commitments. It seems that often we discover that inspiration in the memory of people - past and present-whom we think of as "heroic."
Most of us grow up wanting to emulate individuals who are prominent in the headlines -- politicians, entertainers, athletes and the like. As a young person, most of my heroes wore shoulder pads or baseball cleats. Over time our heroes tend to become less spectacular but also more accessible. Our heroes change from being "super-sized" to being more "real-life sized."
Each summer, Catholics on Call, CTU's national vocation discovery program for young adults, hosts a conference at which I am a presenter. During my talk, I ask the participants who their heroes are, who has inspired them in their faith and self-understanding. The names of some notable individuals are usually mentioned, but most often they speak about parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches and even people they have met through volunteer service in shelters, soup kitchens and third world countries. Their heroes tend to be down-to-earth folks whose words and example have inspired these young adults.
Earlier this month, I participated in a memorial service for firefighters who were killed in the 9/11 attacks. The ceremony was held at the Federal District Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York. The chief judge of the court, Carol Amon, hosted this service to remember 15 men from two firehouses in the immediate vicinity who lost their lives while trying to save people from the burning towers. The large ceremonial courtroom was filled to overflowing with judges, lawyers, firefighters, and family members of the men killed on that terrible day.
I knew one of the widows sitting in that courtroom from my days as a retreat director at the Passionist retreat house in Queens, NY. Captain Tim Stackpole had rushed into the towers with the other firefighters from Brooklyn and was lost that day, leaving his wife Tara and five children. Tim had been one of the organizers for the annual FDNY retreat held at our retreat house. He and Tara also spoke on our retreats for engaged couples. When I first met Tim he was recovering from severe injuries he had sustained in a previous fire in which two of his fellow firefighters had been killed. Five firefighters had rushed up to the second floor of a burning house because they were told that an elderly woman was trapped there. When they got there, the floor collapsed. Tim wore special wrappings on his legs, designed to protect skin that has been badly burned. He could have retired on disability, but he was determined to return to active duty. He was able to return in the spring of 2001. On that day, the New York Daily News ran a story about Tim with the headline, "A Hero Returns." He was promoted to captain and his first day on the job as captain was Monday, September 10, 2001. He was at the Brooklyn Heights firehouse the following day when the call came in.
I have participated in many liturgies in my 27 years as a priest, but I think that the one liturgy I remember most vividly was Tim's funeral. In a scene repeated hundreds of times around New York and other places, a firefighter was laid to rest in the presence of thousands of mourners, hundreds packed like sardines into that parish church and hundreds more listening from the street, dazed at all that had happened. In the midst of the searing grief that was felt that day, there was also a palpable sense of admiration, even veneration, for Tim and many other first responders who had tried to save some of the victims of that disaster.
Tim Stackpole is one of my heroes. His photo hangs on the wall in the main conference room at our retreat house. In a recent visit there, I took some time to gaze at that picture. This very down-to-earth firefighter from Brooklyn, husband and father, this man of irrepressible spirit and strong faith, has inspired me in my own vocation as a Passionist priest.
One of the chiefs of the fire department who participated in the recent courthouse ceremony told me that many firefighters do not like to talk about 9/11. They feel that nothing good came of it; it was simply an unmitigated tragedy, unrelieved darkness. Those feelings are understandable and must always be respected, especially for those who suffered the most painful losses that day. But one way in which we can discover life from that tragedy is to remember the many men and women who sacrificed their lives in service for those who were in greatest need that day. They are real-life heroes for our world today. We honor them not simply by memorializing them in ceremonies. Ultimately, we honor them when we allow the memory of the courage and generosity they displayed on 9/11 to inspire us to be faithful to our commitments today. We honor them when we allow them to teach us generosity in loving service to the people we encounter now, in the day-to-day course of our lives.
Robin Ryan, C.P., is the vice provincial for the Passionist community in New York. He is the founding director of Catholics on Call and former associate professor of Systematic Theology at CTU. Fr. Robin's most recent book, God and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Paulist Press), was released in July.
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