Interfaith Service at 9/11 Memorial

In “a multi-religious gathering” at the site of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, religious leaders including Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, and Christians gathered with Pope Francis amid a congregation that included families of the dead, first responders, and city dignitaries.

They gathered in the presence of the large makeshift cross, which was made out of steel beams found at the site, and is now preserved in the memorial hall. All would have passed by the dramatic fountain of water that defines the outdoor space of the memorial, as they came indoors.

They came to pray, reflect, share, listen.

But they didn’t come to pray together, as Bishop James Massa, an auxiliary bishop of the Brooklyn diocese, and the organizer of the “content” of the service, explained to the New York Times.

“There’s really no common prayer that we all agree upon,” said Bishop Massa. “So it’s not praying together, but being in the presence of the other praying. That’s the distinction we make – being in the presence of, with great respect and great appreciation for, the other.”

Well. It will perhaps be a relief to those who worry about syncretism to think that at the World Trade Center memorial site, all those people got together for an inter-religious service but they didn’t actually pray together. On the other hand, I think this description might surprise many of the people who attended.

Others may wish to comment on this question, but from my vantage point, it sure looked like they were praying together–each in his or her own way, to be sure, but with the intention that their religious meditations, reflections, and, yes, prayer, might be woven together for the good of all.

It may help to describe what actually happened at the service.

The Service

The overall atmosphere was somber and dignified, and moved into a spirit of joy only at the end when a youth choir sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

As the Pope entered, a brassy orchestral arrangement (Aaron Copeland?) of the Shaker hymn, ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple, was played. When all had assembled  on the platform, Cardinal Timothy Dolan then offered a welcome. In that welcome, he informed the Pope that we in New York are sinners, but one of the things we do well (aside from sinning, presumably) is interfaith friendship.

At that point, Elliot J. Cosgrove, Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, and Imam Khalid Latif, Executive Director of the Islamic Center and Chaplain to Muslim students at NYU, rose to speak. They embraced one another before walking each to a lectern. The non-verbal gesture of affection and amity set the tone better than words could have done.

Their sober statements, delivered antiphonally, voiced the gathering’s commitment to building a world of peace. Both condemned the attacks and religious intolerance. Rabbi Cosgrove included quotes from Pope Francis and St. Francis of Assisi, as well as an acknowledgement of the anniversary of Nostra Aetate. He expressed the hope that “the timbre and tonality of each religious tradition” might resound together in the city. Imam Latif praised the movement from ignorance to understanding, and enjoined everyone to be “bold to build friendship.”

A series of prayers and meditations from a variety of religious traditions then followed. The texts were brief but iconic, and very beautiful. There were two leaders from each religious community represented: Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. (Cardinal Dolan, in his opening remarks, said that the Jain community was represented, but if so, none were on the dais and none spoke.)

The first representative of each religious tradition declaimed a prayer or meditative text in that religion’s sacred language, and the other spoke it in English. After each pair, a young man in a Roman collar struck a large Buddhist bell to punctuate the series. This was a puzzling choice in the otherwise delicately arranged ceremony–puzzling not because of the bell, which was fine, but because of who rang it. Music underscored some of the texts. Some texts were chanted.

To quote just a few samples… The Sikhs, Dr. Satpal Singh and Dr. Gunisha Kaur, offered these words: “Know that we attain God when we love, and only that victory endures, in consequence of which no one is defeated.” The Hindus, Dr. Uma Mysorekar and Ms. Ishanaa Rambachan prayed: “Lead me from unreal to real; lead me from darkness to light; lead me from death to immortality.” Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios proclaimed Matthew’s Beatitudes in the Greek of one of the most ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, he explained (which one was not named). Then the Reverend A.R. Bernard, Sr., Founder and CEO of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, proclaimed the same passage in English.

The reverent solemnity of this section was touched with deep feeling as the treasures of these traditions were shared. When Dr. Sarah Sayeed, a Muslim woman who has worked hard for dialogue, prayed “Oh Allah, you are peace…” she took a long pause after the word “peace,” as if mastering a powerful emotion. Then she was able to go on.

There were a number of women on the dais (two Hindus, a Buddhist, a Sikh, and a Muslim) but, sadly, there were no women among the Christians, despite the fact that they were by far the most numerous on the stage.

After this litany of sacred texts, a prayer in honor of those who died in the attack was sung in Hebrew by cantor Azi Schwartz. Here is a bit of it:

O G-d, full of compassion, Who dwells on high,  grant true rest upon the wings of the Shechinah, in the exalted spheres of the holy and pure,  who shine as the resplendence of the firmament,  to the souls of Victims of September 11th who [have] gone to their eternal home…

Pope Francis bowed his head during this prayer for the fallen.

All the texts can be seen in the program booklet, here. The booklet was beautifully produced, and seemed fitting as a keepsake of the occasion.

The Pope’s Remarks

I must say, I think the Pope’s demeanor and words were perfect for the occasion. He gave voice to an idea that surely resonated deeply with each person there who had lost a loved one or watched others die, saying, “Destruction is never impersonal.” Underlining the human pain and loss of this horrific act of destruction, he said, simply, “It’s not about things.” The water of the fountain he likened to the tears that have been shed and the tears that are still shed. Yet he also reminded those present that “the other side of the pain” is found in the power of love and remembrance.

Pope Francis, by his tone of voice, also gave special emphasis to a statement that I think will be reflected on long after this event, because it touches on the challenging subject of pluralism. We must “say ‘No’ to anyone who would make us all the same,” the Pope said; we must “say ‘Yes’ to our differences.”

In all, Pope Francis’s address was a message of hope for peace, born of his prayer that God may bring “peace to all the places where war has seemed to be endless.” After the Pope’s words, there was a time of prayer in silence. The silence was profound. I was watching this on television, not in person, but it seemed like one of those moments in which you could hear a pin drop.

The Service Concludes

After the youth choir sang, the service concluded with a gesture of peace, which could be made in any way one chose to make it: a handshake, an embrace, or perhaps a bow.

I have to admit that I couldn’t watch beyond the part when the youth choir got up to sing because I had to run and catch a train in order to make it to the Mass at Madison Square Garden! If others witnessed the sign of peace and wish to share their impressions, please include them in the comment box.

The service as a whole was a mixture of compassion and hope, prayer for peace, and a response to the great need to build inter-religious solidarity.

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4 comments

  1. If I remember correctly, the Temple in Jerusalem had an area –the Court of the Gentiles– that was reserved for non-Jews who may have been passing through Jerusalem and who needed a place to pray according to their own religion.
    It was also in the Court of the Gentiles that the moneychangers had set up their tables. They were providing an important service, exchanging Roman coins with Caesar’s image for Jewish coins fit for Temple contribution, lambs and other “sacrificial items” that travellers to the Temple could buy locally rather than haul from home. But…. Jesus overturned their tables because of where they were set up those moneychangers were making it difficult for the Gentiles to worship. What’s more, He called that area “my Father’s house”.
    OK… for those who know: if my memory from class has failed me and there is error in my words above, please correct with my apologies and thanks. But if there is a grain of truth in my understanding of that Temple incident, might it have something to say about our own interfaith/inter-religious dialog and worship?

  2. Inter-faith prayer meets – beautiful experiences creating unity, harmony, solidarity and fellow feeling among God’s children.

  3. If there are people worrying that the religions were sharing a prayer or there are cries of syncretism when a Roman Pontiff stands with others at a prayer service then Catholics need to ask themselves just what they were doing on that podium.

    All were storming the devine for a world of peace. If religions can not do that, then they will be the reasons for war, for violence, for fear.

    Thank you Rita for observing they were praying together. If they weren’t, then why were these leaders wasting each other’s time. They were praying together and if that is seen as an offense to the other faiths then it’s time to arm up, because if humans cannot see the significance of relious leadership gathering at the sight of any atrocity to pray for peace, then we are in more trouble than we ever thought.

    Yes, they were praying, and so were millions watching them. So Bishop Massa, they were praing together in each other’s presence. Please God they were praying together.

    As an aside, while waiting for the Papal Mass in Philly, two students of high school age after returning from one of the many Papal Memorabila for Sale tents, were overheard remarking to their teacher/chaperone…”I think this is where Jesus would have overturned the tables like he did once.” They were also upset the vendor had run out of Pope Francis stuffed dolls.

    Please God we were all praying together.

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