NEW YORK (CNS) — In the midst of Pope Francis’ busy Big Apple tour, during which he’ll mostly be surrounded by throngs of people, he may make a quiet stop in a small exhibit hall during his visit to the ground zero memorial Sept. 25.
If there’s time, he will check out a historical exhibit that includes several religious artifacts recovered from the rubble at the World Trade Center in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We absolutely hope he will have the opportunity,” said Alice Greenwald, director of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. “The exhibits represent the role of faith during this recovery. They speak to so many of the values that he espouses (about) the role of religion as a source of hope and a positive force in the world.”
The most well-known object in the room — which is about 6,000 square feet in size — is a 20-foot-tall cross-shaped, steel T-beam found by a recovery worker in a debris field closest to Building 6. The worker informed Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, a chaplain, who consecrated it as “the World Trade Center cross” and celebrated Mass in front of it Oct. 7, 2001.
“It was a nondenominational ceremony because it was for everyone there,” Greenwald told Catholic News Service some days ahead of the papal visit. “There was this place at this site of utter devastation — hell on earth — (where) one could renew one’s faith and find a sense of hope. It was enormously comforting.”
Father Jordan continued to celebrate weekly Mass for workers, survivors and grieving family members at the base of the cross during the recovery period.
The room also features “symbol steel,” symbols and shapes cut out of discarded steel by ironworkers and given to workers and victims’ families as mementos and tokens of comfort. The museum displays four: a Maltese cross, a Star of David, a New York skyline and a heart.
The final piece Greenwald hopes Pope Francis sees is a torn Bible fused to a piece of metal. It’s permanently open to a passage about retribution from Chapter 5, Verse 39 of St. Matthew’s Gospel: “But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil.’ But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
“It takes my breath away every time I look at it,” Greenwald said. “It is a remarkable passage to have been found at the site.”
The pontiff’s pause in the hall would follow a scheduled stop to pray on the Memorial Plaza to pay his respects to the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, and a multireligious meeting for peace in Foundation Hall with local representatives of world religions.
He will also greet a small group of first responders, recovery workers, survivors, families and members of the lower Manhattan community on the plaza, with up to 1,000 onlookers from the community granted access by lottery.
Visits from global leaders “acknowledge the unacceptability of terrorism and affirm that the world is in this together and we’ll have to come up with solutions,” Greenwald said. A religious leader like the pope has the opportunity to “meditate on and think deeply on our human nature and what we’re capable of as human beings,” she added.
Greenwald described Foundation Hall as a “beautiful and haunting” space with 60-feet ceilings. It contains two artifacts: the last column to be removed from ground zero and the “slurry wall,” a surviving retaining wall of the original World Trade Center that remained intact for nine months. If it hadn’t held, the 70-foot-deep foundation would have filled with groundwater and flooded the city’s subway tunnels, making an international tragedy that much worse for New York City.
Greenwald calls the wall a symbol of endurance, fortitude and resilience — “emblematic of the strength of our values as a nation. What better backdrop for Pope Francis and other religious leaders to have (for an interreligious meeting)?
“It’s extraordinarily humbling and gratifying,” she said. “All of us are so honored and so privileged to have Pope Francis select this location for an expression of interfaith peace. 9/11 was an act of mass murder committed in the name of religious believers. Coming to this place with fellow religious leaders to speak about the potential for peace (is) the perfect counterpoint to the narrative of the perpetrators.”
Francis will be the first pope to visit the memorial and museum, which opened on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. On April 20, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to visit ground zero; he knelt and prayed on the spot where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood.
Greenwald said she hoped Pope Francis “will be moved by his experience,” she said. “He’ll see that our messages are very complimentary. He is an advocate for the best of human nature.”