A week after 9/11, Father Bruce Nieli was passing through New York City on his way to Greece and Turkey to lead a pilgrimage in the steps of St. Paul. While waiting out his layover at the Catholic church of Father Mychal Judge — the New York City Fire Department chaplain who had been killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s north tower — he felt a stirring in his heart.
“A little quiet voice said, ‘Get to ground zero,’” he told me, speaking via Zoom from Austin, Texas, where he serves as an evangelist and missionary, based at St. Austin Catholic Church. “I didn’t know this but they had just discovered what I would learn later, when I got to ground zero, was the largest single discovery of bodies since 9/11.”
Having no idea what was awaiting him, Father Nieli rushed out of the church. A native New Yorker born and raised in Long Island, he didn’t need directions. “I get on the Broadway local number one,” he said, referring to a subway line that runs the length of Manhattan, “get off at the barricade, you know, dust and smoke, you know, Roman collar with me.
“And I go up to the policeman and I say, ‘Officer, can I get a little closer to ground zero?’ Somehow he must have known about this discovery of bodies, I have no idea, but no questions asked, he said, ‘Father, get a hard hat and a mask.’”
Father Nieli did and he entered the site. But he didn’t know where he was going. A stranger approached him and said, “You look a little lost, Father … would you like me to escort you?” And the stranger guided Father Nieli to the buried stairwell that had been uncovered.
Many members of the fire department and police department were Catholic, “so as soon as they saw a Catholic priest there, they escorted me right to the pit and there was (then-Mayor Rudy) Giuliani and there was the fire chief, there was everybody,” Father Nieli said.
As he stood, gazing down into the pit, he was overcome by conflicting emotions.
A patriot by blood and place
“My feelings were very mixed,” he said. “I’m part New York Italian.” Father Nieli’s paternal grandparents were Italian immigrants who fled poverty in Sicily, arriving in New York City via boat. Overjoyed, his grandfather threw his hat into the ocean when he saw the Statue of Liberty.
His mother’s side came from German immigrant stock. His maternal grandfather was an abolitionist who helped move Blacks escaping slavery along the portion of the underground railroad that traversed the Ohio River. That same grandfather went on to join Ohio’s Union Army during the Civil War.
But Father Nieli emphasized that he was a patriot, not just by blood but also by place. As he grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood — “I went to (Passover) seders before I ever went to midnight masses,” he said, smiling at the memory — Father Nieli feels a very strong affinity to the Jewish people, a connection that only deepens his ties to the city they have influenced tremendously.
“My passions against the terrorists were strong. How dare they come into my city and take the lives of 3,000 people?” he said. “But as a Christian, the desire to forgive — you know, Jesus says, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’”
Father Nieli is a Paulist, known as America’s friendliest priests, and studied at a Franciscan seminary after high school. As he stood near ground zero, wrestling with his conflicting feelings, he recalled that during the crusades St. Francis had a meeting with the Egyptian leader of the opposition, Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. “And they became fast friends because each of them saw God in each other,” said Father Nieli.
As the first buckets full of ashes — debris that contained human remains — were hauled up from the pit, “the Holy Spirit of the God who hovered over the face of the waters moved my heart,” Father Nieli said. His mouth opened and a prayer poured out of him. “Lord, make us all instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is injury, pardon,” he said, reciting the prayer in its entirety, concluding with, “For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”
“That was the prayer of St. Francis, which I didn’t prepare,” Father Nieli reflected. “It just came out of my heart and that was the blessing that I gave.”
Father Judge, the fire department chaplain who had died at the scene was a Franciscan; Father Nieli believed that Father Judge’s spirit might have been moving him.
But Father Nieli’s life has been characterized by an ability to not only reach out across divides but to be nourished and strengthened by differences. “I would not have become a priest were it not for my Jewish friends,” he reflected. “They got me involved in the civil rights movement, they got me involved in the United Nations” as well as the National Coalition for Christians and Jews (which is now the National Conference for Community and Justice).
Father Nieli’s five-decade career as a priest has revolved around reaching out to those that many would consider different or “others.” In the late 1960s, when he was a seminarian, he sought to help migrant workers in Utah’s sugar beet fields. Now, he is a papal missionary of mercy, which means that he is part of “a group of priests commissioned by Pope Francis in 2016 — the year of mercy — to specifically focus on mercy in our preaching and in our hearing of confessions,” Father Nieli explained.
Adding that he has worked in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley alongside Sister Norma Pimentel, Father Nieli said that to understand the immigrants coming to our country, we have to ask ourselves “What’s motivating them?” and “How can we enter into their experiences?”
It was this kind of radical compassion that allowed Father Nieli to offer a prayer of peace at ground zero.
“If we allow the spirit of God to flow through us, it covers a multitude of sins and it breaks so many barriers. That’s what I learned (during) the experience of 9/11,” Father Nieli said, adding that this approach is also needed in today’s environment of heightened political polarization. “That’s what we have to renew today in each of us — that spirit of reconciliation and peace.”