Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 flies toward the World Trade Center twin towers shortly before slamming into the south tower Sept. 11, 2001. The north tower burns following an earlier attack by another hijacked airliner. Nearly 3,000 people died in the collapse of the towers, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania when terrorists attacked the United States using commercial airplanes. (Sean Adair/Reuters via CNS)
Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 flies toward the World Trade Center twin towers shortly before slamming into the south tower Sept. 11, 2001. The north tower burns following an earlier attack by another hijacked airliner. Nearly 3,000 people died in the collapse of the towers, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania when terrorists attacked the United States using commercial airplanes. (Sean Adair/Reuters via CNS)
The first hijacked plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Sept. 11, 2001; the second and third murderous crashes, at the south tower and the Pentagon, followed within the hour.

In Oregon, people heard the news while fixing themselves breakfast or when they turned on the radio in the car on the way to work. Some got a phone call.

At the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center, staff worried about Archbishop John Vlazny, who was in Washington, D.C., at a bishops’ conference.

There was relief when he sent word he was safe.

Today, the former leader of the archdiocese remembers how scary those days were. “It was like the first time you were punched and hurting, and not knowing when the next punch was coming,” he said.

Within hours, bishops and pastors across the nation announced special services for prayer and mourn-ing.

Bishop Kenneth Steiner celebrated Masses at St. Mary Cathedral in Portland and at St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie. Our Lady of La Vang, Immaculate Heart and St. Philip Neri churches in Portland also hosted Masses that day.

At Holy Cross and Queen of Peace in North Portland, Father Dave Gutmann asked parishioners to re-sist the urge to point fingers and instead remember that all peoples and nations need to live up to the call of the Gospel.

He remembers that both he and Father John Kerns, then pastor of All Saints, posted the Prayer of St. Francis de Sales in their bulletins:

Have no fear for what tomorrow may bring.

The same loving God who cares for you today

Will take care of you tomorrow and every day.

He will either shield you from suffering

Or give you unfailing strength to bear it.

So, be at peace then,

And put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.


Both priests exhorted parishioners to retain trust in God instead of giving in to unbridled anxiety.

Holy Cross Father Richard Berg, then newly appointed to the post of sacramental minister at Marylhurst College and Mary’s Woods in Lake Oswego, celebrated Mass at the Holy Names Sisters’ chapel. He led the people in prayer that the United States would not return evil for evil.

But there was an impulse for vengeance.

An editorial in the Sept. 14, 2001, Catholic Sentinel noted that a man near the Pentagon told a report-er, “I want to kill someone.”

“As Christians, we must speak out against this kind of gut reaction,” the unsigned editorial urged.

Pope John Paul II spoke against the “inhuman terrorist attacks” and prayed for its victims. He implored Americans not to resort to revenge.

With the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan giving a 20-year bookend to the Sept. 11 Al Qaeda ter-rorist attacks, it’s difficult to look back without also considering the two decades Americans spent occu-pying Afghanistan.

During the year following the 9/11 attacks, 181,510 Americans signed on for active-duty military ser-vice, and 72,908 joined the reserves.Army Maj. Tatchie Manso, a college student in New York City liv-ing just seven blocks from the World Trade Center, told the USO, “It was at that moment I realized that there was something I needed to be part of that was greater than myself.”

About 800,000 American service members have served in Afghanistan since October 2001.

The agreement on sending troops was nearly universal. A single representative, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland, Calif.), voted against it. She received death threats.

The Sept. 14 Catholic Sentinel editorial was aptly titled, “A hard time to speak for peace.”

“As our shock and grief at the unprecedented attacks turn into action, we must make sure that prayer guides our behavior in this ever-shrinking world,” the column read.

In the Oct. 5, 2001, issue, two days before the United States began bombing al-Qaida training camps, the Sentinel included former Commonweal editor Peter Steinfels’ comments about a military response.

“I have no problem calling the Sept. 11 attacks ‘acts of war,’” he wrote. “But when we are said to be at war — but a new, different kind of war — I want to know what that means. Is it like the Cold War? The war on drugs? … How will we know when we have won? And weren’t we already fighting a war against terrorism? What will be done differently? Why will it succeed? Who will be the victims?’’

At first Steinfels’ questions appeared misguided.

The war seemed mostly successful. By December 2021 the Taliban had been driven from power. Osa-ma Bin Laden, the terrorist behind the 9/11 attacks, was still at large, but he was in hiding.

But years passed. U.S. and NATO forces remained in Afghanistan with no way to answer Steinfels’ question: “How will we know when we have won?”

Beyond the war, heat, drought and flash floods have ruined many Afghan farmers who had once grown pomegranates, pine nuts and grapes. In 2019 Afghanistan ranked sixth worst in the world among poor countries affected by climate change.

The Taliban today is unlikely to bring prosperity: 50% of Afghanistan’s population is under 15, with about 400,000 new jobs needed each year just to keep pace with its population growth.

In the United States, divisions feel equally insurmountable; the culture coarsened.

Archbishop Vlazny spoke to the disappointment that things haven’t improved in the 20 years since 9/11. “We rallied together as a country in a spectacular way then,” he said. “But nothing is uniting us right now. And as the saying goes, ‘United we stand, divided we fall.”

Archbishop Vlazny takes comfort in faith and the Eucharist. “I thank the Lord that I was raised in such a way that I am a man of faith,” he said. “We’re still free to choose the temptations from the evil one, but like a good parent, God never abandons his children. And with God’s help, things will work out.”

Father Gutmann, now pastor of Holy Trinity in Beaverton, acknowledges people’s current fears. “We are living in a time of increased uncertainty about almost everything as we witness the unraveling of so many institutions and increased divisions at all levels,” he said.

He continues to counsel faith, prayer and community. Parish life lifts spirits and the St. Francis de Sales prayer is “still fitting today, for sure,” he said.

Father Berg, who has become deeply involved in caring for soldiers with post-traumatic stress, believes on this 20-year anniversary of 9/11 it’s time to renew actions and prayers toward peace and justice — something the COVID-19 pandemic brought home. “It seems true that hatred is being released into the world, making these commitments even more important,” he said. “We can’t cancel out the suffering, there’s no quick exit around the cross. That’s part of the Christian journey. I think the only way to go forward is to keep up our hope and faith in Christ and one another.”