Pope Francis made an emotional visit Friday to ground zero in lower Manhattan, where he paused to offer private prayers and took part in a multi-religious gathering entitled “A Witness to Peace.”
The event called upon both the pastoral and the prophetic side of the head of the Catholic Church as he prayed for healing for the families of the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and called for people of all faiths to work together to ensure a future of peace.
With a remaining foundational wall of the Twin Towers as his backdrop, the Pope addressed approximately 500 religious leaders from different traditions, showing his compassion for the suffering that took place where he stood.
"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," he said. "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. ... This place of death became a place of life too, a place of saved lives, a hymn to the triumph of life over the prophets of destruction and death, to goodness over evil, to reconciliation and unity over hatred and division."
Before the service, Francis was met at the Memorial Plaza by 1,200 members of the 9/11 community including family members of victims, first responders, rescue and recovery workers, survivors of the 1993 and 2001 attacks, and residents of the neighborhood.
The pope paused for reflection at the South Pool of the memorial to look at the bronze panels that bear the names of the victims and to greet a small number of families.
One of the family members who came to see the pontiff was Jim Giaccone, who lost his brother in the attacks and who brought his 86-year-old aunt, Bernice Giaccone, to the ceremony. Raised Catholic, Giaccone told The Huffington Post that while many, including his father and aunt, had gone towards the church after 9/11, he had gone the other way.
"As many times as I tried faith it felt like a rejected organ. While I spent time mentoring two kids who had lost their dad, and volunteering with the 9/11 Tribute Center, I still felt that need for the church, to accept and believe again. Pope Francis gives me some hope. I have hope that he will be the catalyst that I will be able to believe and accept God and the church and to be able to have faith again."
The multi-religious gathering took place within the 9/11 Memorial Museum in Foundation Hall and opened with invocations by Imam Khalid Latif, a chaplain at New York University and the chaplain for the New York Police Department; and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, senior rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue. Both leaders emphasized the theme of peace and reconciliation between religious faiths.
"The setting says it all," Cosgrove told The Huffington Post. "The fact that there will be an interreligious gathering affirming our commitment to peace and dialogue in the very spot that is associated with religion as an instrument of violence and hate is an extraordinary powerful message to the world.”
Francis offered his own prayer, entitled "Prayer for Remembrance," followed by prayers for peace from leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities.
The pope's concern for peace and interfaith cooperation for the common good has been a hallmark of his papacy in Rome; it also marked his time as cardinal in Buenos Aires, where he had a close relationship with both the Muslim and the Jewish communities. He even invited Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he wrote the book On Heaven and Earth, and Imam Omar Abboud to join his delegation on a visit to the Middle East. The friendship between the men was captured in a photograph at the Western Wall.
This year, the Catholic Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” also known as Nostra Aetate, which offered an official blueprint for the Catholic Church to foster interfaith peace.
In his remarks at the Sept. 11 memorial, the pope made clear his commitment to that peace.
"I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world. For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace," he said.
Alice Greenwald, director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum, told HuffPost in an email that the pope's "messages of the power of love and peace over hate and violence echo the very principles that inspired the commitment to remember and rebuild."
"His historic visit reminds us that when we come together in peace, nothing is impossible," she added.
The Pope ended his address by inviting the gathering to pray for peace:
"Here, in this place of remembrance, I would ask everyone together, each in his or her own way, to spend a moment in silence and prayer. Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace."
The multi-religious gathering ended with The Young People’s Chorus of New York City singing "Let There Be Peace On Earth,” which opens with the line, “Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me.”