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The First Response: A Register Editorial on Faith in the Public Square (1718)

Especially in this post-9/11 world, we must find ways to continue allowing public expressions of our need for the Almighty — and our gratitude for his blessings. From our Sept. 25 issue.

09/21/2011 Comment
John Burger

Pastors pray in the shadow of the new Freedom Tower on Sept. 10, 2011.

– John Burger

The recent 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks once again reminded Americans of the loss suffered by thousands of families, as well as the heroism and selflessness of hundreds of first responders, many of whom gave their lives that day.

Finally, after nearly a decade of planning and debate, New York City was ready to dedicate the National September 11 Memorial on the site of the World Trade Center. But many New Yorkers were not ready to give up one thing that got them through those dark days 10 years ago: prayer.

Thus the outcry against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to not invite clergymen to the dedication. His office said that the mayor wanted the focus to be on the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and not on any squabbles over which faith traditions would be represented.

In the end, President Barack Obama read the 46th Psalm during the ceremony, an appropriate choice.

Bloomberg also said there was no room at the dedication for “first responders” who rushed to the burning Twin Towers. But excluded, too, were the spiritual first responders: clergy who went to Ground Zero to pray over the dead and comfort the wounded — and who tended to spiritual scars for years to come. One of them — Franciscan Father Mychal Judge — was the first recorded death at Ground Zero.

If the focus of the ceremony was to be on families, many of the clergy, too, were “family.” As spiritual “fathers” who lost congregants to the terrorist attacks (and there were many), they too must have grieved.

But a deeper concern is how the organizers of this official ceremony would try to pretend that this facet of our lives is something extraneous, something that would bring division, if this or that pastor was given a platform. We are constantly told that we must celebrate diversity and accept one another in our multicultural society.

So, to honor every culture, we have to have public ceremonies devoid of culture? Culture, as papal biographer George Weigel points out, has at its root “cult,” a word that has taken on negative connotations but sums up the things that people will stake their lives on: language, literature — and faith. So often in the face of tragedy, man’s natural first response is prayer — beseeching the Almighty for aid.

Bloomberg’s response was unnecessary and creates a troubling precedent. Especially in this post-9/11 world, we must find ways to continue allowing public expressions of our need for the Almighty — and our gratitude for his blessings.

Filed under 911, faith, prayer in the public square, religion