By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Fire Department’s Mission Statement pledges the agency will “protect lives and property” through its various roles and that its members will “prevent harm and survive.”

But it is the final two words of that statement, vowing to “Be Nice!” that caught the attention of Bishop John P. Dolan.

“Really, I think that’s a wonderful statement,” the bishop said during his homily for the Diocese of Phoenix’s Mass of thanksgiving for first responders at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral Sunday.

“A lot of what first responders have to do is de-escalate situations, be nice, and treat others with dignity and respect,” he said, adding there is a common thread among first responders, parents and the general population “to treat one another with dignity and respect; with love, compassion, and mercy.”

That parallel was one of several of the bishop’s points to around 300 worshippers at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral on the twenty-first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

A total of 2,977 people died, including 343 New York City firefighters, 71 law enforcement officers and 55 military personnel when terrorists crashed passenger jetliners filled with fuel into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and an open field in rural Pennsylvania. Authorities believe the latter plane was most likely headed for the U.S. Capitol building when its passengers struggled with the terrorists in an attempt to retake the aircraft, prompting the terrorists to crash it immediately.

While the diocese has traditionally celebrated a Blue Mass for public-safety and emergency personnel, this was the first Mass of thanksgiving for first responders, the first on Sept. 11, and the first on a Sunday. It included the lighting of a single candle each by representatives of the Phoenix police and fire departments and a chaplain for the Arizona Dept. of Public Safety to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and salute today’s first responders.

“Today is a very special day,” Bishop Dolan said as he opened Mass. “We are grateful to them,” he continued.

Later, he paid tribute to the men and women who serve in a variety of agencies around the Grand Canyon State as well as those on the East Coast killed over two decades ago.

“We celebrate our first responders; those who put themselves in harm’s way, especially on that particular day. Our first responders constantly give of their time, their energy and their lives for the sake of this community here in Arizona.”

Everyone can learn something from first responders in carrying out Jesus’ teachings on mercy and compassion, he said.

“We’re called to participate as first responders in our own way, always keeping guard, watching over our children and our families. But we also recognize we are called to do that with dignity and respect.”

The bishop said that the 9/11 attackers thought “justice wasn’t prevailing,” so they “drew a line in the sand.”

Today, he continued, we live in a world “marked by war, divisions and drawing lines in the sand. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Instead, the bishop urged his hearers to reflect the character of Jesus, who taught his followers in the Sermon on the Mount to “pray for those who persecute you,” and to “love your enemy.”

“It’s a whole different way of living — the God way, not the human way.”

And it works, he said.

The bishop recalled a time many years ago in seminary when he was verbally abused by a fellow student. The treatment continued though the bishop prayed and sought guidance from his spiritual director and counselor. Finally, one night, as he fell asleep, he asked God to bless his attacker. The future bishop repeated the prayer over and over as he drifted off.
The next day, the other student approached Dolan, apologized, and informed him he was leaving seminary for another career path.

“I was happy, but more happy that I had discovered that prayer,” he said.

“That’s how we should be responding … to those who are angry with us, in our nation, our community or in our families … not to fix them, but to bless them.”

That, the bishop said, is the path to healing divisions.

The message resonated with worshippers.

Luis Samudio, who retired last year after a lengthy career as a Phoenix police officer and is a parishioner at St. Thomas More in Glendale, said his faith has helped guide his approach to his work.

“It has made me think about how I react to people. I have a heart for forgiving these individuals, but they also recognize they are doing something wrong, and I am here to enforce the law,” he explained.

Virginia Gonzales, a parishioner at Ss. Simon and Jude, is the widow of a Phoenix firefighter. Her three sons also are firefighters: Joe is a deputy chief, Mark is an assistant chief, and Chris is a battalion chief.

Gonzales said she and her husband raised their sons in a Catholic home, and that faith lessons instilled with the men the values they carry on the job today.

“They are to serve, love, and have compassion,” she said.

Gonzales said the reverberations of 9/11 were felt far and wide.

“We all cried, and we all felt pain. My heart aches for first responders. They see things that we don’t; we have no idea what they go through,” she said.

Gail Ratti Curran, also a Ss. Simon and Jude parishioner, said she has great respect for public-safety workers.

“They are giving their life for us. I want them to know we appreciate them and pray for them. They put themselves in harm’s way, regardless of who it is. The community should see it as a vocation,” she said.

Donna Kurgan, another Ss. Simon and Jude parishioner, recently lost an extended family member who was a police officer to cancer.

“In coming to know him, I learned how dedicated they are to service. I pray for them daily,” Kurgan said.

She labeled calls in recent years throughout the country to defund police “sad.”

“I hope we turn around ]that] mentality. No paycheck is going to cover what they do.”