A Gathering of Prayer, Exhortation and Inspiration in Boston

Religious and civic leaders gathered with everyday Americans at a prayer service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, addresses the interfaith gathering yesterday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, addresses the interfaith gathering yesterday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. (photo: Justin Bell)

BOSTON — Civic and religious leaders joined everyday citizens for prayer, remembrance, hymns and reassurance in an interfaith service yesterday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the mother church for the Archdiocese of Boston.

“We love the fathers and the brothers who took shirts off their backs to stop the bleeding; the mothers and the sisters who cared for the injured … the homeowners all across the city who opened their doors and hearts to the weary and the scared,” said longtime Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

“They said, ‘What's mine is yours — we’ll get through this together.’”

Thursday’s 11am “Healing Our City” gathering drew attendees from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist communities, along with Mayor Menino, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.  

Former Massachusetts governors, including recent GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, were also in attendance at the prayer service that lasted about 90 minutes.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley served as host for the event — as, in a real sense, the cathedral is his house — and he lives onsite at an adjacent rectory.

Apparently, Gov. Patrick tapped the cardinal and the cathedral for the service, which had a worldwide audience and tight security. Surrounding streets were blocked off with a plentitude of police outside and Secret Service agents inside.

The service was open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, with people arriving as early as 5:20am.


Common Themes

After an opening hymn of Praise to the Lord, Almighty, Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church (a well-known former Boston TV anchor) set an early tone of strength and hope after tragedy, noting God’s presence.

“This is what I know: God is here in the midst of this sacred gathering, in this sanctuary and beyond,” she said, adding that  the community was one of “resilience” and will rise to face “whatever the future holds, resolutely as one.”

“This is what is demanded of us, and this is who we are,” she said.

She concluded her time by leading a prayer: “Lord, bless this brokenhearted city, as she finds her balance, dusts herself off and tilts her head back for the sky. Open our eyes to your presence this morning; open our hearts to your grace; restore us, so that we can see and be the light once again in all that we hold holy. For me, that is Jesus Christ. Let the people of God together say Amen.”

Rabbi Ronne Friedman of Temple Israel in Boston extended the theme of prayer support to Newtown, Conn., and to West, Texas — where up to 15 people are thought dead and around 160 injured, after an immense fertilizer plant explosion on Wednesday night.

“Our message to them is: Our arms are wide enough to hold you in our hearts as well,” he said.

Representing the Islamic community, Nasser Wedaddy recalled when a car bomb detonated while he was walking home from school while living in Damascus, Syria, as a 7-year-old. Emotions associated with that incident returned to Wedaddy after Monday’s twin blasts on Boylston Street at the end of the 117th Boston Marathon.

He then recounted a passage, apparently from an Islamic text, that states that, whenever one kills a soul, it is like killing all of mankind, and when one saves a life, it is like saving all of mankind.

Wedaddy then told of his taking the oath of U.S. citizenship a week prior, where he pledged to defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against both foreign and domestic enemies and to perform works of national importance. He didn’t realize at the time how this would be brought into play so soon.

“I want to salute everyone who ran toward the victims, despite risk to themselves,” said Wedaddy.

Acknowledging first responders, runners and others who ran toward to site of the explosions to help — not knowing if the danger was over — was a common theme, along with the blend of religious reference and civic and national inspiration.


Menino’s Powerful Moment

One of the most poignant moments came fairly early, when Menino began his address. Having been recently hospitalized, the longtime mayor was brought to the base of the large church ambo in his wheelchair. He then made the effort to successfully stand and proceeded to give his address with his thick and iconic Boston accent.

After wishing everyone a good morning, he said it was a good morning “because we are all together; we are one Boston.”

He said that, while hatred makes strife, love covers all sins.

“And since the clock struck that fateful hour, love has covered this resilient city. I have never loved it and its people more than I do today. We have never loved it and its people more than we do today,” said Menino.

Bishop John Border of Morning Star Baptist Church read a Scripture passage from the Sermon on the Mount and then commented: “To those of you who have suffered ... wherever you might be, the Lord is saying to you: ‘Never lose sight of your future,’” said Border, and he then paraphrased themes of the beatitudes with an emphatic delivery.

Border then pointed to the theme of the Massachusetts license plate: “The Spirit of America.”

“And I pray the world — right now, today, at this moment — will look at us and see the true spirit of America,” said Border.


Cardinal O’Malley

As the last of the faith leaders to speak, Cardinal O’Malley delivered Pope Francis’ message of support and encouragement: to not be overcome with evil, but instead fight it with good and “working together to build an ever more just, free and secure society for generations to come.”

The cardinal acknowledged those who had died and expressed solidarity with the injured. He also expressed happiness that the family of victim Krystal Campbell, 29, of Medford, Mass., was in attendance.

He said the tragedy made people stronger, more courageous, and he called people out of a complacency and indifference. The tragedy “calls us to focus on the task of building a civilization that is based on love and justice.”

“We do not want to risk losing the legacy of those hurt in this, who were willing to lay down their lives in this for the common good,” said Cardinal O’Malley, before continuing on with a respect-life theme.

“We must overcome the culture of death by promoting a culture of life, of profound respect for each and every human being made in the image and likeness of God. We must cultivate a desire to give our lives for the service of others,” he said.

Cardinal O’Malley — who wore his customary brown Capuchin habit — concluded his remarks with the prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis.

“It is in pardoning that we are pardoned and in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen,” prayed the cardinal.


The President and ‘Boston’s Diaspora’

Gov. Patrick spoke of his faith tradition, of giving thanks to God in all things, and how that was hard to do on Monday. He addressed how the United States was not formed like other countries and said American civic values were developed over time.

“Just as we cannot permit darkness and hate to triumph over our spiritual faith, so we must not permit darkness and hate to triumph over our civic values — that cannot happen,” he said to applause.

At the end of his remarks, the governor introduced President Obama.

In his address, Obama seemed to encompass the many components of the gathering, including Scripture and prayer references, specifically acknowledging the three dead, the rallying of Boston and the strength of the American people in the face of the attack and the attackers.

“I’m here today on behalf of the American people to send a message: Every one of us has been touched by this attack on your beloved city,” said the president.

“Because, after all, it’s our beloved city, too. Boston may be your hometown, but we claim it, too. It’s one of America’s finest cities; it’s one of the world’s great cities,” he continued.

He spoke about how Boston “opens its heart to the world” and how young people arrive in the fall from all over the world to study at the many universities here and that in the spring they are sent forth to use their education for good.

He recalled his own experience of attending law school at Harvard and how he and his wife have walked the streets of the city.

Obama repeatedly referred to St. Paul’s “running the race” imagery and of not having a spirit of fear or timidity.

“We may be momentarily knocked off our feet. But we’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going. We will finish the race,” he said to applause. “We know that somewhere around the bend a stranger has a cup of water; around the bend somebody’s there to boost our spirits, and that, in the toughest miles, just when we think we hit the wall, somebody will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall. We know that.”

He drew the strongest response when he referenced the future victories of Boston sports teams, to the “chagrin” of Chicago and New York fans, and the return of the Boston Marathon on the third Monday of April next year.

He concluded in a characteristic way for U.S. presidents.

“May God hold close those who have been taken from us too soon; may he comfort the victims; and may he continue to watch over these United States of America,” Obama said.

Cardinal O’Malley gave a closing blessing, and America the Beautiful was sung as a closing hymn.

The Cathedral Choir, the Boston’s Children’s Chorus and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma provided music during the service.


Positive Reaction

After the service, people interviewed by the Register were positive about the service.

“I think it’s so important that we came together as a community and also as a nation. To have the whole country praying for us, here at the cathedral, was awesome,” said Tim McGuirk.

McGuirk, 19, a Boston University student, estimated that he had been about 200 yards away from one of the bomb blasts on Monday. He arrived at the cathedral at 5:20am.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, 44, ran in the 2008 Boston Marathon and had experienced a terrorist attack in 1995 while attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A bus was blown up on a route he routinely took, and he lost a classmate. He had overslept that day and missed the bus.

“By the grace of God, I missed that bus, and I went to my friend’s funeral,” said Rabbi Pesner, connecting this to the experience of marathon runners who had finished the race before the bomb blast or were stopped after it.

Pesner, the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, praised the diversity of faith leaders and people of different races gathered together, whereas, in previous generations, he said, Boston had a history of “racial and religious polarization.”  

He said, “God put us on this earth and in this city, with many faith traditions and many ethnic backgrounds, but today reminded us what we know, which is that we are all sisters and brothers of one God and one family.”

Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from Boston.