The slurry wall in the National September 11 Museum -- that massive remnant of the original World Trade Center -- will be a gray and somber backdrop when Pope Francis gathers with religious leaders from Long Island and across the region for a multi-religious service there tomorrow morning.
"It is one of the walls in the world we are grateful is standing," said Auxiliary Bishop James Massa of the Diocese of Brooklyn, who helped plan the ceremony for Cardinal Timothy Dolan, leader of the Archdiocese of New York.
The immense retaining wall, constructed in the 1960s as the trade center was being built to prevent flooding from the Hudson River, withstood the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack that brought down the Twin Towers. A portion of it is exposed in the museum's Foundation Hall, and it is a powerful symbol of survival for many families of victims and first responders.
The multireligious program, Massa said, "will echo what Pope Francis has been saying on a global stage" about peace, the environment and mercy for the suffering.
The pope is slated to travel to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum after addressing the United Nations General Assembly, which is his first appearance Friday. He is expected to tour at least a portion of the outdoor memorial, talking with families of victims and with first responders before entering the museum.
At the multireligious gathering, Francis will be welcomed by Dolan, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan and Imam Khalid Latif, executive director and chaplain of the Islamic Center at New York University. Also on the stage in Foundation Hall will be Greek Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh religious leaders. Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre is attending.
The service -- titled "A Witness to Peace" -- includes prayers for those who died on Sept. 11. Participants of several faiths will give readings. Francis will speak toward the end of the event, listed on the program as "Reflection by the Holy Father," before the Young People's Chorus of New York sings "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
The Rev. A.R. Bernard of Smithtown, founder and senior pastor of Brooklyn's Christian Cultural Center, was asked to share in reading the Beatitudes, from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, with Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
"I'm honored," said Bernard, who also is president of the Council of Churches of the City of New York. "I have had the privilege of also greeting Pope Benedict when he came in 2008 on behalf of the evangelicals, and to move from an ecumenical to an interfaith service is quite a leap. It is a very exciting opportunity."
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel in Lawrence is among those invited to the event. He spent weeks in lower Manhattan after the terrorist attack, blessing and counseling firefighters, police, EMS and other rescue workers.
Rosenbaum said the ceremony sends the message that together "we make the statement that this memorial and monument speak to all -- that while we are people of different faiths, we share the same fate."
Rosenbaum, who has spent years fostering interreligious dialogue, recently organized a conference of Jewish-Catholic dialogue at the Domus Galilaeae in Tiberias, Israel, leading a delegation of 70 rabbis. He has met Pope Francis before and was part of the gathering of religious leaders in Washington, D.C., when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008.
Habeeb Ahmed of Albertson, who is president-elect of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, said he is looking forward to attending Friday's service.
"I am very fond of this pope," he said. "To be honest with you, when he got elected, I sent him a congratulatory note. The way he lives himself -- the simplicity -- he is a breath of fresh air."
With Paul Moses