NEW YORK (RNS) Pope Francis embraced survivors of 9/11 in the footprints of the Twin Towers, then prayed for peace at an interfaith service beside the last column of steel salvaged from the fallen skyscrapers.
Arriving straight from his speech to the United Nations on Friday (Sept. 25), Francis met with families from the 9/11 community -- people who survived the destruction, rescued others from the inferno, or lost loved ones in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, executed by religious zealots.
Meeting those families, Francis said, "made me see once again how acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract or merely material. They always have a face, a concrete story, names. In those family members, we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven."
"Here, amid pain and grief, we also have a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of, those hidden reserves of strength from which we can draw. In the depths of pain and suffering, you also witnessed the heights of generosity and service."
At the prayer service, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Francis -- looking tired halfway through his packed six-day American itinerary -- asked God to "look on us, people of all faiths and religious traditions, who gather today on this hallowed ground, the scene of unspeakable violence and pain."
"Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred and who justify killing in the name of religion," he said in Spanish to an audience of nearly 500 clergy and lay people representing more than a dozen faiths and denominations.
After the interfaith service, the pope saw two of the secular museum's most famous artifacts. The Ground Zero cross -- two-pieces of steel, 20 feet high, found in the 9/11 wreckage -- became the gathering point for a weekly Mass at the cleanup site.
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The second, also found in the debris, was a battered Bible, its pages fused together and turned permanently to Matthew 5:39: “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
During the interfaith service, Imam Khalid Latif and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, both of New York, alternated words of peace. More pairs followed: two Hindu women, two Buddhists, two Muslims, a Sikh father and daughter and a Protestant and Orthodox Christian. Some spoke in English, some in their native languages. The pope sat in the middle and followed along in his program.
"God judges us according to our deeds, not the coat that we wear," said Sikh activist Satpal Singh in Punjabi, and his daughter Dr. Gunisha Kaur, who translated the prayer into English.
Then Cantor Azi Schwartz, of Park Avenue Synagogue, chanted in Hebrew a prayer to honor the 9/11 dead, asking God to give rest "to the souls of victims of September 11, who have gone to their eternal home."
The Young People's Chorus of New York City -- more than 60 teenage boys and girls, wearing different colored scarves -- sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth" for the pope, who then closed the one-hour service with the sign of peace. Francis hugged, shook hands or bowed to each of the dozen men and women faith leaders on stage -- allowing them to first gesture to him which would be more appropriate.
After the pope left, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a member of the interfaith audience, glanced around the room and suggested the faith leaders stay and capitalize on the occasion and the pope's loving spirit.
"Lock the doors," he said, until the group figures out how to achieve world peace.
YS/AMB END MARKOE