On Sept. 25, Pope Francis will visit the World Trade Center memorial site of the 9/11 attacks, where nearly 3,000 people were killed by terrorists in 2001. He plans to pay his respects to the victims of the attack and meet with local religious leaders for a Multi-Religious Meeting for Peace.
The pope will visit New York after stops in Cuba, Sept. 19-21, and Washington, D.C., Sept. 22-24
Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, who is helping the Archdiocese of New York coordinate the Lower Manhattan event, said he could only guess why the Holy Father wanted to meet other religious leaders at a place like the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
“It is a place that carries very painful memories for this city and our nation,” he said. “The violence committed against innocent people was done in the name of religion. What better place for representatives of the great world religions to offer a witness of peace as a counter statement to the terror of 9/11.”
Bishop Massa said that the Archdiocese of New York, which is hosting the New York portion of the papal trip, will organize a pre-arrival program to set the stage for the meeting.
“We want to acknowledge the place where we are,” he said. “It is a very sacred place for the American people.”
He explained the program that is planned. The pope will first greet families of the victims and first responders. Then he will go into the museum, where he will preside at an interreligious prayer meeting. Bishop Massa estimates that about 600 people will be with the Holy Father in the museum’s Foundation Hall. Attendees will represent eight religious traditions: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Native American.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan will welcome the Holy Father, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Imam Khalid Latif will offer words of reflection, and then Pope Francis will pray for the victims of the attacks.
The religious leaders will offer meditations on peace in Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian and Muslim traditions in their sacred tongue, with interpretations in English. There will then be a Jewish prayer in honor of the deceased sung by a cantor.
The pope will give a reflection. Afterward, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City will sing and attendees will be invited to share a sign of peace. Pope Francis will then move on to Harlem for his next stop during the nearly 40 hours that he will be in New York.
Bishop Massa expects the multi-religious meeting to be a moving experience for those present and for those watching on TV or reading about it.
“For us Catholics, it will be recognition that the pope is not only our chief shepherd over the global Church, but also a figure who has symbolic importance for the entire world and its religions,” he said. “Remembering that the pope’s name is Francis, the name of the saint we associate with peace, it is so fitting that he’d gather with other religious leaders to make a bold statement about peace.”
Bishop Massa had begun working as a content coordinator for the multi-religious meeting about seven months ago, before he was made bishop. He is overseeing the content of the meeting and the list of guests. He was invited to help by Cardinal Dolan, whom he knew through teaching at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, and working as executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in Washington, D.C.
The cardinal also knew that Bishop Massa had worked on the Benedict XVI papal visit of 2008.
Bishop Massa said that even though popes and bishops have held meetings with leaders from the world’s religions before, “this (event at ground zero) has a particular poignancy right now given that our own Christian brothers and sisters continue to be victims of religiously inspired hatred and violence.”
“I’m hopeful it could be one of the most touching moments of his entire visit,” he said.
Bishop Massa, who has been handling the guest lists, said that he wanted to make sure the faith leaders invited will represent “the religious demography of NYC.”
“We interact with many of these religious communities thought various dialogues and conferences that treat a wide variety of subjects including ecology, racial harmony and peace-making,” he said.
“For me it’s great joy in bringing people together, particularly people of religious conviction to demonstrate that despite our differences, we can build bridges of friendship and mutual understanding to one another.”