Out of the Depths

Posted on Sep 30, 2015

What I will most remember about the recent multireligious gathering with Pope Francis at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is the hush that awaited and greeted him. I don’t remember anyone giving a direction for silence. Certainly no one signaled the few who applauded when the Pope entered the room that applause at that moment, in that place, for that man, was not appropriate. The audience of clergy and laity representing the many religions of New York City had been sitting patiently for 10 to 15 minutes after milling around for more than an hour. The speakers had gone to their seats on stage; the government dignitaries had quietly taken their assigned places. We awaited the Pope in the room at the very lowest level of the museum, ground zero of Ground Zero as it were, and, finally, his entourage too made its way to the podium, exactly on schedule—and in total silence.

There were many words spoken in the next few minutes, of course. The carefully choreographed procession began with Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s welcome on behalf of New York City’s religious leaders who, he said, worked well together on fostering partnership and dialogue. Next came representatives of Judaism and Islam (Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove (RS ’99) and Imam Khalid Latif, respectively) and then Francis himself. The man of the hour spoke totally without fanfare, somberly and solemnly, clearly not interested in demonstrating rhetorical power or any other kind of power, for that matter, but only in summoning something from the depths of the place and the depths of those listening to him, that would at once remember, witness, and heal. “O God of love, compassion and healing. . .We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here. . .We ask you, in your compassion, to bring healing to those who, because of their presence here 14 years ago, continue to suffer from injuries and illness. . .God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world. . .Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope. . .”

The Pope had apparently asked that this “witness to peace” be held at Ground Zero. I wondered if Psalm 130 was on his mind as he did so. “From the depths I call on you, Lord. Hear my voice. Let your ears be opened to the sounds of my pleading.” The words of the psalm rang in my ears as he spoke, as did—less than 48 hours since Yom Kippur—the Al Chet prayers “For the sin that we committed before you by doing X, and for the sin that we committed before you by not doing Y. . . For all these, Lord, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” So much responsibility could be apportioned among the political and religious leaders gathered in the room, I reflected, both for things said and done, wittingly or unwittingly, that gave sanction to intolerance or violence, and for things left unsaid or undone.

The man in white at the podium did not once raise his voice in anger, or chide the dignitaries arrayed in the first few rows for not accomplishing more in the way of justice and mercy, or give the slightest hint of judgment, either in his own name or in the name of God. I wondered if he had decided to speak his prayer in halting English, rather than in his native Spanish, in order to take on the weakness of the immigrant and of everyone else who lacks verbal facility—including the dead who, as the Bible says, must dwell forever in silence. The very last thing the pope wanted to do, it seemed, was shout. My guess was that he believes God too is not a shouter. I recalled the passage in I Kings (19:11-13) when God is revealed to the prophet Elijah. There is first a wind that seems to tear the very mountain apart, and God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, and the Lord is not there either. The same holds true of the fire. Finally there is a “sound of thin silence.”When Elijah heard it, he covered his face. That is where God can be found.

The other moment of the day that I shall not soon forget had a similar quality. Following a second series of meditations on peace by representatives of the world’s religions, and immediately before the Pope’s second address—this one on the subject of peace, and given in Spanish, no less quietly or solemnly than the first—Cantor Azi Schwartz sang a beautiful, haunting El Male Rahamimin Hebrew, followed by a rhythmic Oseh Shalom Bimromav in which the Jews in the audience joined. This is a pope who clearly wants to reach out in friendship to all the world’s religions, as Second Vatican Council did 50 years ago in the Nostra Aetate declaration. He has extended an especially warm hand to Jews. The quotation from Francis about dialogue that appears on the inside cover of the booklet that was distributed during the occasion is taken from the book he wrote with his friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka. The Pope’s picture on the fifth page shows him from behind, his arm around the shoulder of a man wearing a kippah. And here was our friend Azi, slowly and deliberately asking God’s mercy for the 9/11 victims, calling their martyrdom a sanctification of God’s name, and then implicitly inviting the many Jews scattered throughout the room, as Jews are scattered throughout the world, to sing along as he introduced the Pope with a prayer—our prayer—for peace. Cardinal Dolan seemed to sing along.

“That was a moment,” I said to the Jewish woman next to me. I ascended to ground level a few moments later, chatting with a Catholic prelate from Massachusetts about what the gathering meant to him. He was proud of Francis, for good reason. “People are coming back to church because of this pope,” he said. “I’m glad,” I replied. So much violence on TV and on the streets. So much poverty and despair. So many problems not addressed, let alone solved. So much avoidance of those problems, and of people (or peoples) who see the world differently from ourselves. And so much speech, whether by politicians or talk show hosts or on the street, that cheapens and degrades us, making it harder and harder to be raised up from the depths toward hope as Pope Francis did during his speech.

If the representatives of the world’s religions who live here in New York City cannot manage dialogue and partnership, I doubt it can be achieved anywhere on earth—which is why we New Yorkers must achieve it here. I agree with Cardinal Dolan on that point wholeheartedly. And if Jews cannot lead the way on the effort of caring for the planet and for humanity at a moment when we have unparalleled visibility, resources, and influence, and have a good friend in the Vatican to boot, when can we take the lead? When will we? The onset of 5776 is an ideal time to start.