NEW YORK — Even before Pope Benedict XVI arrived for the memorial service at Ground Zero, one priest noted the Pope demonstrated his sensitivity to those present.
The 24 guests and various dignitaries stood there on April 20, Sunday morning, as the chill hung in the air and the wind blew vigorously, said Msgr. Robert Fagan, a retired priest of the Rockville Centre Diocese, N.Y., and uncle of one of the victims of the World Trade Center attack. “We stood there a while. It was cold. Some people shivered.”
That may have been appropriate for a service for victims, survivors and rescue workers of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
“Pope Benedict rode toward us in the popemobile, but maybe 25 to 30 yards away, he got out and walked,” noted Msgr. Fagan, a long-time pastor and former director of Catholic Charities for the diocese, which is outside New York City.
“That was so very sensitive of him. The rest of us had to walk there and he walked, too,” Msgr. Fagan said. “In a sense, he brought all of us together even before he said anything.”
As he walked, a cello played — a marked contrast to the festiveness of most of Pope Benedict’s appearances.
People affected by the 9/11 attacks said they were struck by the Holy Father’s presence and his attention to the survivors, families and rescue workers.
“I’m so grateful the Pope would come like this,” said Dorry Tompsett of Garden City, N.Y., whose husband, Stephen, died in the tragedy.
“I thought it was great that the Pope made time for it,” said Mark Heintz, a New York City firefighter who aided in rescue efforts that day. He also helped bring the body of New York City Fire Department chaplain Father Mychal Judge from the site of the attack to the nearby St. Peter’s Church.
“It was really emotional,” said Tompsett, who, like Heintz, watched the service on television. “He was validating the sanctity of the site.”
As he arrived, Pope Benedict prayed privately at a special kneeler, and then struggled against the winds to light a candle, finally getting it lit after several attempts.
The Pope prayed aloud not only for those who died here, but also those killed the same day at the Pentagon and in the United Airlines plane that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa.
“O God of love, compassion and healing, look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions, who gather today at this site, the scene of incredible violence and pain,” Pope Benedict prayed.
“We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here — the heroic first-responders: our firefighters, police officers, emergency service workers and Port Authority personnel, along with all the innocent men and women who were victims of this tragedy simply because their work or service brought them here on Sept. 11, 2001.”
The Holy Father also prayed, “Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy. Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.
“God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world — peace in the hearts of all men and women, and peace among the nations of the earth.”
And, in an apparent reference to terrorists and other extremists, he added: “Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred.”
Once he finished praying, Pope Benedict met personally with each of the invited family members, rescue workers and survivors. Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, stood by and told the Pope who each person was.
“He was looking right at the person who was standing there,” Msgr. Fagan said. “He was not distracted. He focused on you.”
One woman spoke with the Pope for some time, “but he just held her hand and listened,” Msgr. Fagan said.
Cardinal Egan introduced Msgr. Fagan, noting that his nephew, James Murphy IV, 30, died that day. He had been married two years.
“I will pray for the widow,” Pope Benedict told Msgr. Fagan and then asked: “You pray for me.”
“I do that every day, Holy Father,” Msgr. Fagan replied. “Thank you for being who you are.”
Msgr. Fagan said that he received a pair of rosaries from Pope Benedict, and that the New York Archdiocese gave each of the 24 a replica of the candle he lit and a cross made from debris of the World Trade Center. “I will give the rosaries to Jimmy’s widow, Jeanine.”
Tompsett noted that she was struck by Pope Benedict’s reciting a prayer from the Book of Numbers: “May the Lord let his face shine upon you.”
“That was my husband’s favorite prayer,” she said.
Also watching on television was Msgr. Philip Hill, a New York archdiocesan priest and the chief of staff for the U.S. Army’s Chief of Chaplains Office at the Pentagon.
Msgr. Hill, who was at the Pentagon the day it was attacked and later blessed remains of some of the victims of the World Trade Center, said, “It was wonderful seeing the Pope there.”
Pete Sheehan writes
from New York.