Interfaith prayer at Ground Zero

Penn Station, NY.—Faithful readers will notice that I rarely comment on the biggest items in the news, feeling that there is an abundance of competent commentators already at work. On church issues and events, particularly regarding Pope Francis, America itself excels in coverage. But I could hardly excuse myself from some comment on yesterday’s “A Witness to Peace,” termed a “multi-religious gathering with Pope Francis.” No, I did not get to meet the pope, and at my closest proximity to him was about 15 feet away from him (as he entered). And no, I did not get to speak at the event: Francis (and Timothy Dolan) covered the need for Catholic speakers! But it was a remarkable event, and I was privileged to be there. (And no, I was not officially representing Harvard either, though I was not the only person present with a Harvard connection. See the end of this piece.) While we all wanted to see the pope, from start to finish, it was a time of shared prayer, a remarkable interfaith moment of praying together. You can find much coverage online, of course, including video of the whole event, as here.

It helped that the day was beautiful, the weather perfect, and that this was, among papal events, a small one, perhaps only 500 altogether. It mattered greatly that it took place at Ground Zero, in the September 11 Memorial Museum. After security and before entering the hall, I had a chance to walk around the North Pool, to and meditate for a while on the downward and inward flowing waters, and the many, many names inscribed around the perimeter of the pool. Given the quirks of security and the tendency of most to go inside right away, I was almost alone there (NYPD aside). As the morning went on, all of us who eventually gathered in the museum’s theater were primed for a quieter, more spiritual event. The pope himself had just met with some family members of 9/11 victims, before entering the space. We were not somber, but introspective, attentive.

The program booklet might give the impression of lots of words by many speakers, but in essence, the representatives of the different faith traditions—Hindu and Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim, Sikh, each a representative or leader in her or his community—were offering prayers for peace. No one postured or tried to draw attention to herself or himself. The prayers, which you can see in the program, artfully, gracefully drew all in attendance into a simple underlying spirit of the various traditions.

The scene itself—remnants of the two towers all around—was the most effective multimedia resource, but sound too was important. Some of those who prayed chanted, in Sanskrit or Pali, Greek or Arabic. It was a pleasure to hear the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) read first in Greek and then in English. A cantor sang beautifully and movingly in Hebrew “a Jewish Prayer in Honor of the Deceased;” when he sang at the end another prayer, Ya Oseh Shalom (“Mayhe who makes peace in high places”), it was again moving that the Jewish members of the audience joined in, a prayer as it were permeating all of us. Similarly, when the remarkable “Young People’s Choir of New York,” perhaps sixty members in all, came out to sing the (to Catholics at least) familiar “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” many of us could (softly) join in. The boundary between the stage and audience was permeable throughout; we were not really an audience, but a congregation at prayer. (You can read Tim Reidy's report from the event here.)

Pope Francis’ own words, delivered in Spanish (we had headsets), were a profound meditation. He began with reflections on the place itself—where at the two pools water flows “like tears,” and created his own setting for the event: “A few moments ago I met some of the families of the fallen first responders. Meeting them 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.” He went on to talk about the meaning of that suffering, and the necessity that living by hope, we build communities of interreligious peace-makers as our true response to violence. It was quite remarkable to hear a pope say, “In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say ‘no’ to every attempt to impose uniformity and ‘yes’ to a diversity accepted and reconciled.” May this wisdom flourish inside the church as well!

Francis ended with a plea and a time for silent prayer. The building of peace “can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven. 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. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all. Simply PEACE.” In such words he too spoke artfully, gracefully in words that drew in and included everyone present.

Underlying the entirety of the relatively brief ceremony (under an hour), was the simple fact that it was so simple, fundamental, and easily-flowing interfaith event. The challenges and problems we often associate with interfaith relations—misunderstanding, political and cultural anxieties, fears of relativism—were not at issue. And we were praying together; it would be foolish to postulate that Hindus prayed on their own, Muslims prayed on their own, and Buddhists prayed on their own, while the pope and the Catholics were praying on their own. No. We prayed together. What might come next? First, given that we do pray together, we still can and should ask, What does praying together mean? What does it tell us about God, about Jesus Christ?

I would also hope for future occasions where the specific riches of the particular traditions become more explicit. Only rarely, in English at least, did any of the speakers make explicit reference to God’s own name and names in their traditions: Allah and G-d (standing in for the Hebrew of God’s Holy Name) were uttered, while Francis never used explicitly Christian language. Underlying every word, yes, the individual faiths gave life to the words spoken; but much remained unsaid. We need also to learn to hear and listen to the particularities of our many traditions, if we are to advance further along the path of praying together.

A Harvard note: I cannot help but add that I was happy to see a number of friends in the audience, particularly Hindus well known to me. (We had plenty of time for mingling before the event started.) I also ran into a number of people with Harvard connections. Professor Patrick Ryan, S.J., a scholar of Islam and of Muslim-Christian studies was there, and so was Rabbi Daniel Polish, a well-versed scholar of Hinduism. Both had studied at Harvard and (I think) even lived at my Center for the Study of World Religions in the late 60s and early 70s. Similarly, I was pleased to be introduced to Dr. Hussein Rashid, who finished his studies in Islam at Harvard a little more than a decade ago. I spoke for a while with Sri Anuttama Dasa, a leader in the ISKCON community, and I look forward to hosting an event he is planning for the spring of 2016. Several others with deep Harvard connections were introduced to me too. Given Harvard’s long tradition of the study of the world’s religions, it was good to see that many of us are still working together to honor and help foster the interfaith dynamic.