I was honored to have been invited by New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan to attend the recent multi-faith prayer service at the World Trade Center with Pope Francis. It was a deeply moving experience and an example of how all of the world's faiths might work together toward humanity's common goals.
Pope Francis said, "I feel many different emotions standing here at ground zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable." That is almost an understatement. It is impossible not to feel the horror of what happened in the September 11 Memorial Building's Foundation Hall, a massive room with its 36 foot ceiling and one wall from the original towers, the so called "slurry wall." Posted on what is now called the "last column," were inscriptions, posters with photos of missing people, and other memorabilia placed there by rescue workers from September 11.
There were 500 of us at the service, representing many faiths. On the dais were leaders of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Christianity, some of them in traditional dress. They offered prayers or meditations on the theme of peace, first in their sacred language and then in English. After each meditation a large Firehouse bell was struck, the tone echoing throughout the hall. Then a cantor sang a Jewish prayer in honor of the dead.
The service was designed to give religious leaders of many faiths an opportunity to pray together for peace, while respecting our individual religious identities. I couldn't help but think of the health care chaplains I work with who do this every day in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and for ill patients at home. They are charged with bringing peace and comfort, with providing spiritual care and meaning to people who are suffering from illness or facing death. While each chaplain may have his or her own faith, they are providing this care to people of any faith or no faith. They respect individual religious identity while providing universal spiritual care. They listen and learn about the individual's concerns and fears.
New York Times columnist David Brooks made just this point in calling Pope Francis "The Prince of the Personal." In describing his visit as both a spiritual and cultural event, Brooks wrote, "Francis offers a model on two great questions: How do you deeply listen and learn? How do you uphold certain moral standards, while still being loving and merciful to those you befriend?"
Pope Francis' popularity transcends religion. There were people in the crowds of varying faiths who waited hours for a chance to see this charismatic pope, who is so much a man of the people. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in early September found that 45 percent of respondents saw Francis more as a leader and humanitarian spokesman for all people, regardless of their religion. A Pew Research Center poll in February found that his approval rating among white mainline Protestants was 74 percent. Among those with no religious affiliation, it was 68 percent!
In New York, "Mostafa El Sehamy, a Muslim originally from Egypt who is married to a practicing Catholic of Mexican descent, said of Pope Francis, "He's just one of my favorite people. He's so humble and so into people. I'm a Muslim. But I believe that maybe God sent this guy to unite everybody together."
In Philadelphia, where Francis celebrated Mass at a Catholic conference on family values, Jews, Baptists, and Lutheran volunteers joined in to work at the conference. One of them, Ilyse Shapiro, said with a laugh, "Clearly, I'm Jewish," but it transcends Catholicism. It transcends religion.' This pope is speaking for the poor and the powerless. That is beyond religion." Pope Francis is loved by everybody, regardless of religion or lack of religion, because he shows us that spiritual care has no boundaries.
The millions who watched and listened to Pope Francis during his visit in person or on television shared the same feeling. I can't remember the last time we had so many continuous days of good or positive news that made us want to look more deeply at our humanity. His visit to our country was a good news event that brought us joy because as humans we want to believe there can be a world united without sectarian conflicts. Pope Francis made us feel it could be done.
Before he left New York Pope Francis made it a point to say the multi-faith service was special and said, "I ask you all, please, please to pray for me, and if there are among you any who do not believe or cannot pray, I ask you please to send good wishes my way."