VATICAN CITY — John Paul II paid homage Nov. 9 to the New York fire department when he greeted a delegation in St. Peter's Basilica. Days before another airline disaster in New York, the Pope privately told one fireman that he “prays incessantly” for the strength of the New York firefighters.

“I give my warmest welcome to the delegation from the New York fire department,” the Holy Father told the thousands who crammed into the basilica for Mass.

“They bear unforgettable testimony to the qualities of courage and dedication,” he said.

On Sept. 11 firefighters rushed into New York's World Trade Center to rescue as many people as possible after terrorists steered two hijacked planes into its two towers. On the scene, the firefighters — most of whom were Catholic — put out an urgent call for priests to give them general absolution, since they knew that the buildings would likely fall down on top of them. More than 300 firefighters died when they did.

The New York delegation flew to Rome for “USA Day,” a rally organized by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Reuters reported. “The aim of the day was to unite Italy behind the U.S.-led coalition battling Afghanistan's Taliban, who host the prime suspect behind the attacks, Osama bin Laden,” said the news organization.

The Pope told the delegation: “May Almighty God grant the bereaved families consolation and peace, and may he give you and your fellow firemen strength and courage to carry on your great service to your city.

“With the promise of my continued prayers, I invoke upon you and your families God's abundant blessings,” the Holy Father said.

Under Michelangelo's cupola, firefighter Patrick Burns gave the Pope the helmet of Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, chaplain of the Fire Department, who died in the Sept. 11 attack on the Twin Towers.

Father Judge died while giving last rites to a firefighter fatally wounded by a falling body. When the priest removed his fire helmet to pray, he was struck on the head by debris and killed.

The firefighters were introduced to the Pope by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, his vicar for Rome, who referred to “the unforgettable testimony of dedication and courage” shown on Sept. 11.

Later Nov. 9, New York Fire Department Chief Daniel Nigro, who replaced Peter Ganci who died in the tragedy, took part in an Italian-organized demonstration of support for the United States.

Nigro spoke about his meeting with the Pope when he addressed the crowd.

“The Pope told us that since Sept. 11, he has prayed incessantly for the victims and for strength for us, the firemen,” Nigro said. “We told him that this is exactly what we felt. All of us will return to New York with the blessing of the Holy Father.”

(Zenit contributed to this article.)