People are often surprised at my long history at CBS News. CBS, after all, isn’t exactly a farm team for Catholic clergy. I am probably the only man in history who went from working for Katie Couric to working for the Pope.
But my story, I hope, helps to tell our story. The story of people on pilgrimage — a journey of faith. It’s the story of answering a call.
And it began 20 years ago today.
When we look back at pivotal moments in history, we often ask ourselves, “Where we you when…?”
It was supposed to be just another Tuesday. I had taken the subway into Manhattan from my home in Queens and was walking from the Columbus Circle station to my office in midtown. At the time, I was a producer at “60 Minutes II,” the Wednesday edition of the magazine show.
I had the title of “Story Producer,” but I was essentially the rewrite guy — editing scripts, writing lead-ins and helping craft the weekly promos for the show. This particular morning in early September, we were preparing for the start of another season. Walking from the subway, I was mentally checking off some deadlines that were looming for later in the week: scripts I had to read, screenings I had to attend, copy I had to finish.
I stopped at a convenience store on West 58th Street to pick up a few things. When I came out, I noticed a group of people had gathered around the back of a delivery van. Someone had set up a small portable TV. They’d cranked up the volume. I walked over to see what they were watching.
That was my first glimpse: Smoke pouring out of one of the towers at the World Trade Center.
I didn’t have to see anything else. My day, I knew, had suddenly changed. I needed to get to work. I started walking, then jogging to my office three blocks away.
I reached the lobby, took the elevator upstairs to the 9th floor of our building. When I got off the elevator, I saw a small group of people had gathered at the south end of the floor, in front of a big bank of windows. I walked over to see what they saw.
And there it was. Five miles south of where I was standing. Plumes of smoke were circling up into that perfect September sky.
I turned around and walked over to my office on the other side of the building and turned on my TV. A few other people wandered in. There were four or five of us just watching. Standing there. Nobody could say anything. All we could do was watch. And a few moments later, the first tower fell, and the smoke billowed. And we all said the same thing: “Oh my God.” We all knew: our world had shifted.
A few minutes later, I got the call: We need you over in the newsroom. I went downstairs, and across the street to the Broadcast Center, reported to the editor in the newsroom, and found a desk and got to work.
I spent the next 14 hours in the newsroom studio, sitting in front of a computer screen in a small glass-walled room, typing hourly updates that Dan Rather read on the air.
“Where were you when…?”
I remember. I was five miles from Ground Zero, telling the world what had happened.
I remember. I saw it replayed again and again, the images of those towers falling.
I remember my colleague, producer Tom Flynn, who lived downtown. He had been near the towers that morning, running into the newsroom sometime in the afternoon. He sat down at the anchor desk to be interviewed. The stage manager went to hook a microphone to his shirt, but then stopped and stared. Tom was covered with dust. He looked like he was going to cry.
A few hours later, Dan Rather opened the CBS Evening News.
“Good evening,” he said. “This is a day you will remember for the rest of your life.”
We stayed on the air, live, until 1 o’clock the next morning.
I didn’t know it at the time, but outside the newsroom, everything had stopped. New York City that day went into lockdown. You couldn’t leave. Bridges and tunnels were closed. Buses, trains and taxis stopped running. I managed to call my wife and some family, to tell them I was alright. But soon phones stopped working.
Manhattan became, in every sense, an island.
So that night, I couldn’t get home to our apartment in Queens. CBS had started reserving rooms for staff at any hotel in the city. A little after 1 am, a group of us, about five or six producers, decided to walk together to the Sheraton on Sixth Avenue, about a mile away, not far from Rockefeller Center.
It was a beautiful, warm night. But it was strange—utterly and completely quiet. The streets were deserted. There was no traffic. The streetlights were all blinking.
On every street corner, there was a soldier.
We got to Broadway and crossed the street. I looked south, to Times Square, about 10 blocks below us.
What I saw made me stop in my tracks. I nudged one of my colleagues and pointed downtown. “Look at that.”
Every marquee, every billboard, every neon sign was dark. The city had turned off all the lights in the most famous square in the city. They were afraid another attack was coming. Someone later said it was the first time that had happened since World War II.
We made it to our hotel, and I checked in. I slept fitfully. When I finally got up, about five hours later, I had the disorienting sensation you have when you wake up in a strange place and you aren’t quite sure where you are.
I got up and looked out the window. I expected empty streets. But it was another bright, brilliant September morning, just like the one before. People were walking to work, like always. Cars were moving on Sixth Avenue, as always. I showered, threw on my clothes from the day before, and went downstairs to the front desk.
That’s when I saw him. As I was checking out, a fireman was checking in. He was still wearing his heavy coat and helmet.
But you could barely see any of it.
He was covered, head to foot, in ash.
I made it back to CBS and put in another day in the newsroom writing updates. That evening I was able to finally leave Manhattan. I took the subway back home to Queens and walked in the front door and hugged my wife and, for the first time, wept.
The city and the country slipped into what seemed like a period of perpetual angst, sorrow, grief, disbelief.
In the days and weeks that followed, I kept remembering that man at the hotel.
He was impossible to forget.
Everything that happened then was impossible to forget.
In New York City, for weeks you couldn’t get away from it. Every evening, I’d walk to the subway to go home from work and I’d pass candles in windows, and flags on doors, and handmade banners that said, “God bless our heroes.” With every memorial service, every funeral, every candlelight vigil, it was always there. It was there every time I passed a bus stop or a lamp post and saw a flyer with a picture of someone and the word “Missing.” I’d stop to read some of them. “Have you seen her?” “We love you.” “Worked on 96th floor of North Tower.”
Our home in Queens is about 15 miles from Ground Zero. A few days after the attack, I went out to run some errands on a Saturday morning and I noticed it. Walking to the post office, I stopped at an intersection and turned to the woman next to me. “Do you smell it?” She nodded. “It must be the cloud,” she said. Smoke from Ground Zero had drifted east. You couldn’t see it anymore. But it had become a part of the air that we breathed.
Some of my coworkers from CBS went down to Ground Zero a few days after it happened. They needed to see it for themselves. But I couldn’t do it. I made my first trip down there six months later, for my job, as we filmed new material for the documentary “9/11,” telling the story of the men who worked in the firehouse next to Ground Zero.
It was early March. It had been a long day by the time we arrived at the site with the production staff and camera crew. It was close to midnight, but the neighborhood was lit up like daylight. There were dozens, if not hundreds of people operating equipment — digging, retrieving, recovering. The ground was covered with mud. The buildings all around us were empty.
But what was most memorable was the light. There were klieg lights, spotlights, lamps, all rigged on tall poles, clamped to equipment. It was blazing. It looked like midday.
We were there with the host, Robert De Niro, and he was mobbed by people — cops, firefighters, security personnel. He posed for pictures and signed autographs — scrawling his name on helmets, on ticket books, on scraps of paper. Again and again, everyone said the same thing, “Thank you.” And he was saying the same thing back to them. “Thank you.” This was almost literally in his backyard, just a few blocks from where he lived.
He took this personally. But so did all of us.
I suppose it was inevitable that in the months that followed the attacks, I found myself turning more and more to my faith. We were seeing it regularly on TV — the funerals, the prayers, the priests offering counsel, the iron cross that stood at Ground Zero.
I needed to make sense of something senseless and feel less alone.
I am a cradle Catholic — and for most of my life, I suppose I was a “good enough Catholic.” Sunday Mass, Catholic school, all the usual things that you try to do as a good Catholic boy growing up in Maryland.
But suddenly, to me, “good enough” wasn’t enough.
I had come to realize that everything I had, everything I’d earned or collected or achieved, all the trophies and certificates, they could all be gone like dust. What was it all for?
Was there something else I was supposed to be doing?
I became a regular at daily Mass. I started reading more, praying more. A few years earlier, my father-in-law had given me a copy of “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton — and I finally took it off the shelf and started reading.
I couldn’t put it down. Merton’s story of a young man searching for answers in a confused and chaotic New York struck a chord.
Inspired by Merton, I decided to make a retreat to a Trappist monastery. One weekend retreat became several. For a while, I considered becoming a Lay Cistercian.
During one retreat, I met someone I hadn’t expected: a man by the name of Wayne Bodkin. He was from England, with a wife and family.
And he was a deacon.
I knew little about deacons — we didn’t have one in my parish in Queens — but I had a vague idea of who they are and what they do. Wayne, it turned out, also worked in broadcasting. He was a producer for the BBC. I heard him preach during one of the liturgies — and the thought appeared out of nowhere:
“That could be you.”
I tried to shake it off but couldn’t. I talked to Wayne one afternoon and we compared notes about our lives, our careers in broadcasting, who we knew, what we had done. I asked him about his life as a deacon, and he told me it was the greatest thing in the world. And then he gave me a sharp look and a big smile.
“Oh,” he said, ”YOU should be a deacon! You’d be great!”
For no good reason, I believed him.
I flew home from the retreat and told my wife, “Guess what: I’m going to be a deacon.”
She thought I’d lost my mind.
We talked and agreed: let’s wait a while. “You can do it after you retire,” my wife said. “What’s the rush?”
But God knew better. He always does.
After that, it seemed, every time I turned around deacons were invading my life. I was channel surfing one night and stopped at one channel to watch a roundtable discussion on an obscure cable channel. I turned up the volume.
It was a group of deacons talking about deacons.
I went out to a local diner for breakfast one morning and picked up the Queens Chronicle, a free local paper, and opened to the middle spread.
It was a story about deacons in the Catholic Church.
There was no escaping it.
My wife and I talked more, prayed about it, and finally agreed: Something is going on. This is something we can’t put off. I talked to my pastor, made some calls, filled out some forms.
Five years later, I found myself in an unlikely place, in an unlikely position: lying face down on the floor of a basilica, hearing a choir chanting the litany of saints as, by the grace of God, I was ordained a deacon.
By that time, “60 Minutes II” had gone off the air. I was working then as a writer for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. Katie knew about my vocation and even used to call me “Father Greg.” For a time, I was the go-to guy whenever there was some news on the wire about the pope or the Vatican.
I was enjoying the kind of career most journalists would envy.
But I wanted to be someplace else.
I wanted to use what I had learned at CBS News to do something new.
Don Hewitt, the legendary creator of “60 Minutes” used to say that the secret of that show’s success could be summed up in four little words—four words known by every child: “Tell me a story.”
I had reached a moment in my life when I wanted to tell a different story.
I wanted to tell a story of hope.
In a world covered in ash, I wanted to tell a story of light.
I once preached about Genesis, and noted that the first words God speaks in all of scripture tell us what he wanted for the world:
“Let there be light.”
Let there be light.
God’s first order of business was to banish the dark.
This is our great call, maybe the greatest and most challenging — to fill a dark and fear-clouded world with light. With courage. With hope.
Let there be light.
When the world crumbled, I was in so many ways in a place of darkness.
But I keep remembering the light.
The light of candles burning in windows on 57th Street.
The light at prayer vigils in parks around New York.
The blazing light at Ground Zero at midnight.
The unexpected light of my vocation.
Grace abounds, in spite of everything.
Grace that gives us comfort and hope.
Grace that gives us heroes — and, sometimes, saints.
They were there that day in New York City, in Washington, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They are around us every day. When we despair of all that is troubling our world these days, we need to remember that, and remember them, and whisper a prayer of gratitude for all who sacrifice, who serve, who give.
It’s been said that we are now living in the world of September 12 — every day is like the day after, and we are marked forever by that moment in history.
But before I conclude, I want to go back to September 10.
That day, September 10, 2001, the chaplain for the New York City Fire Department blessed a new firehouse in the Bronx.
The chaplain’s name was Father Mychal Judge.
History records him as the first official fatality of 9/11. He appears prominently in the CBS News documentary, which features the only film footage shot inside the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The footage shows Father Judge walking through the lobby moments before the first tower fell. He is wearing his priest’s collar and a fireman’s helmet. He is alone, pacing in the lobby, and his lips are moving.
When my wife first saw the film, she knew.
“He’s praying,” she said. “Greg, he’s praying for all those people.”
The last moments of his life were spent in prayer.
He was praying the day before, too, on September the 10th, when he spoke to firemen in the Bronx.
Today he speaks to all of us in the words of his last homily.
Father Judge began with a short prayer and then offered this reflection.
He sounded like Walter Cronkite:
That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.
The retiree — He needs your prayers. He needs your stopping by occasionally to give strength and support and to tell the stories of the old days. We need the house and to those of you that are working now, keep going. Keep supporting each other. Be kind to each other. Love each other. Work together and do what you did the other night and the weeks and the months and the years before and from this house, God’s blessings go forth in this community. It’s fantastic!
What great people. We love the job. We all do. What a blessing that is. A difficult, difficult job and God calls you to it. And then He gives you a love for it so that a difficult job will be well done. Isn’t He a wonderful God? Isn’t He good to you? To each one of you? And to me! Turn to Him each day. Put your faith and your trust and your hope and your life in His hands, and He’ll take care of you and you’ll have a good life.
And this house will be a great, great blessing to this neighborhood and to this city.
“Where were you when …?”
As time goes on, there will be fewer who do, fewer who can answer that question about 9/11. It’s been 20 years. A generation is already coming of age who have no memory of something so much of us will never forget.
But today I have one simple message:
Tell the story.
We need to keep telling this story, we need to keep remembering.
Tell the story.
Remember the loss and the sorrow.
But remember more.
Remember the courage. The honor. The selflessness.
Remember more than the darkness.
Remember the light.
God’s first words at the beginning of time are his words to us today. Words to uplift and challenge a broken world, words to guide us as we strive every day to rebuild, to heal, to hope.
They are the beginning of everything.
“Let there be light.”
Let there be light.
Deacon Greg Kandra will be speaking in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, September 11, 2021, following a Mass honoring rescue workers, police, firefighters and public servants on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This reflection is adapted from his prepared remarks.
Image: Adobe Stock.