By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Pope Francis’ Sept. 25 visit to ground zero was unlike any of his other stops in New York or Washington. It was somber, quiet and reflective, fitting for the location and for the assembled crowd of about 1,000 people who had been directly impacted by the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Certainly there were cheers for the pope when he first arrived and cameras held aloft to capture a glimpse of him, but there was none of the flag-waving and reaching out to the pope, and not much more than a wave from him to the crowd, some of whom held pictures of loved ones who had died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In his 20 minutes outside the 9/11 Memorial before praying with religious leaders inside the museum, the pope prayed silently next to a candle by the memorial’s south reflecting pool, then personally greeted about 20 people, including first responders and victims’ family members. The pope shook their hands, blessed them and gave them rosaries. Some wiped tears from their eyes when they walked away.
While the pope was meeting this group, the memorial grounds were almost silent except for the rushing water from the two pools where the twin towers once stood. On the outside edge of the pools are the names in bronze of all who died in the 2001 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
There was an interrupted yell of “a blessing, please,” and when the pope finished greeting the family members there were shouts of “Francisco, Francisco!”
The pope did not address to the crowd but simply walked into the 9/11 Museum, leaving the group to linger on the grounds on the sunny and clear morning or line up to wait near the exits while the pope prayed with religious leaders.
But many felt that just by his presence, the pope made a difference.
“It meant the world to us,” said Moraima Doubraski, whose husband worked in the World Trade Center and is a 9/11 survivor.
The fact that the pope wanted to come to this site and meet with 9/11 family members 14 years later “speaks volumes about the kind of person that he is, his heart and his soul and his desire to be with and among people who are experiencing some sort of loss or tragedy,” said Anthoula Katsimatides, whose 31-year-old brother, John Katsimatides, died in the north tower.
Monica Iken-Murphy, whose husband Michael died in the south tower, said the memorial is a “sacred and hallowed space” made even more symbolic by the pope’s blessing, since he represents peace.
And the blessing was not just for those who died on this very spot. Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of American Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon, said the pope’s blessing was “for all of us who are in such desperate need.”
She said the pope’s visit was a sign of hope and love, not unlike the outpouring of “great love and affection” from the world after 9/11.
Katsimatides, Iken-Murphy and Burlingame were among those who met the pope personally, representing those behind the barricades who obtained their spots through a lottery.
For Joan Higgins, the 82-year-old mother from Our Holy Redeemer Parish in Freeport, New York, the day was not what she had expected.
“I was actually disappointed. I expected him to give us all a blessing,” she said.
She would have even been happy if the pope had merely looked over to the section where she was standing holding a gold framed photo of her son Timothy, a member of the New York City Fire Department, who died at age 43 in the north tower.
Higgins, who has only been to the 9/11 Memorial one other time, placed flowers at her son’s name on the pool’s edge. She said the difficulty of coping with her son’s death “changes but never ends.”
During Pope Francis’ time of prayer in the 9/11 Museum, which was not broadcast to the crowd outside, the pope said that meeting the families of victims was a concrete reminder that “acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract or merely material. They always have a face, a concrete story, names.”
“In those family members,” he said, “we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven.”
However, the pope said, they also demonstrate “the power of love and remembrance,” which is something the memorial promotes.
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.