SAN FRANCISCO. Uniformed police, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies stood saluting in silent tribute of their comrades who had died, as the haunting notes of “Taps” filled the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption at the annual memorial Mass for San Francisco’s police, fire and sheriff departments.
The bugle’s melody came near the end of a Mass that drew on nearly eight decades of tradition.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco was the main celebrant of the Sept. 11 Mass.
Concelebrants included Jesuit Father Edward Reese, a San Francisco Fire Department chaplain, as well as police chaplains Father Michael Quinn and Father Michael Healy.
“You my dear brothers and sisters are the force of order in our city. We thank you for the great risks you take with your lives every day, every day to ensure order and our protection,” Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco told the assembled men and women in uniform in his homily before he walked throughout the cathedral, blessing the first responders’ stars and shields with holy water.
The archbishop told the congregation in his homily that the more we try to live as God wants, the more we and our society come close to an ordered society, to heaven.
In the same way, the role of first responders is to bring order to society, he said.
“This is the reason we have law enforcement and other first responders: fire, police, sheriffs, park rangers — you are the forces of order in our city,” Archbishop Cordileone said. “Again, we thank you for the great risk you take with your lives every day to ensure good order and our protection.
“We don’t know what we’d do without you, but one thing is certain: Life would be in a constant state of chaos.”
The memorial Mass honors those who have died in the previous year, active and retired, but also is an opportunity for the Catholic Church to directly acknowledge and honor firefighters, fire department paramedics, police, sheriff’s deputies, park police and all first responders active on the streets of the City and County of San Francisco.
The Mass was first offered in 1947, following a hotel fire that killed four firefighters. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Mass was moved closer to Sept. 11, and this year it fell on the actual anniversary.
The attacks were the worst on U.S. soil. That morning, terrorists hijacked two passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Center, destroying the twin towers.
This attack was quickly followed by terrorists flying a third hijacked passenger plane into the Pentagon. A fourth passenger plane, initially headed to Washington, crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers thwarted the hijackers.
The memories of these attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, “are still very vivid, still very painful,” the archbishop said. “For many there is a sense of irretrievable loss, especially the loss of the loved ones who perished in the terrorist attacks and perished trying to save others.
“There is a sense, too, of a corporate irretrievable loss in our nation in more of a spiritual sense: We discovered that we are not so invincible, that we are not immune to acts of war on our own turf, that we, too, are vulnerable to being humiliated just like everyone else.”
“While there is a sense that we have endured a loss that we cannot get back, the readings from the Bible for Mass today teach us lessons about lost and found. Is this not how God works?” he continued. “In the midst of the tragedy and the terror, let us think about what our nation gained, or perhaps regained, in the aftermath of those terrorist attacks.”
Among what was gained “were the inspiring acts of heroism by the local firefighters, police officers and other first responders,” he said.
Many acts of these heroes will never be known, but “they must serve as a powerful reminder to us, though, of their commitment to putting their lives on the line for our safety and the good order of our communities every single day,” Archbishop Cordileone said.
He called it an honor to host the congregation of first responders at the cathedral “for this Mass in which we thank you for the sacrifices you make for us, sacrifices mostly which we do not even see.”
Before the Mass, a large group photo was taken on the cathedral plaza with the archbishop, Mayor London Breed, Fire Chief Jeanine R. Nicholson, Sheriff Paul M. Miyamoto, Police Chief William Scott, other elected officials and the uniformed first responders in attendance. A short reflection by Father Reese, the fire department chaplain, also preceded the start of Mass.
Reflecting later in the day, Father Quinn, police chaplain, noted how appropriate it is to honor both those first responders who suffered and died rescuing others after the terrorist attacks and the men and women who serve San Francisco.
“Our first responders consistently respond to a variety of situations — for civil victims some the worst days of their lives. Yet they consistently respond with integrity and respect, the same awesome qualities that marked the first responders on 9-11-2001,” the San Francisco police chaplain said.
The memorial Mass included “The Last Alarm,” a reading of the names of those who died the previous year by representatives of police, fire and sheriff’s departments.
The reading of the names near the end of Mass was preceded by a short reflection by Assistant Police Chief David Lazar, a self-described “latch-key kid” and fourth-generation San Franciscan who was first inspired to be a police officer when his single Italian mother became a 911 dispatcher when he was 11.
With unflinching honesty, Lazar said the open drug markets, epidemic of drug overdoses, crime and disarray on the streets can create hopelessness in the police and firefighters and paramedics, and in the sheriff’s deputies who work in the jails.
“I’ve seen death in many forms. I have seen the lowest. I know I am not alone. We’re all in that same boat,” Lazar said. “It seems like a lot of despair. It seems like no end in sight.”
But in a rousing exhortation, Lazar said, “As people of faith we do not have the option to enter into the space of hopelessness. As long as we have God, we have reason to hope. We know we are making a difference. As people of faith, we have hope, we have hope for a brighter future for our city.”
“Do not be discouraged,” he added. “Know our help comes from God. May God bless San Francisco.”