2015-10-14 / Editorial

A witness to peace: Reflections on praying with Pope Francis

For the Voice

I was beyond excitement when I opened the invitation I received from Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, to attend the interfaith service, “A Witness to Peace,” with Pope Francis on Friday, Sept. 25 at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I felt incredibly grateful that I would be sharing prayer with inter-faith leaders from America at a service in which the homily was to be delivered by the Pope, himself.

The prayer service took place on the Friday morning before the Jewish festival of Sukkot. The message of the gathering, in fact, one of the powerful themes of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, complimented the message of Sukkot—the vision of a time when humanity will be come together in all its diversity out of a sense of love and respect for each other and their Creator. Being at the 9/11 Museum, listening to the Pope, meeting people who have dedicated their lives to this great hope, motivated the following response taken from my Sukkot sermon to my congregation at Lions Gate, a continuing care retirement community in Voorhees:

Jews envision Sukkot not only as a holiday for the Jewish people; but it is a holiday for all the world. In the vision of our prophets, Sukkot will be the day when all people will come to worship in Jerusalem, each in their own language, each according to their own custom; each acknowledging in their own way the sovereignty of God, envisioned traditionally as “the King of the King of Kings”— the one before whom even emperors submit. The hope is not that everyone will become Jewish or that everyone will be the same. Rather, the dream is that in some wonderful way each of us will come and celebrate God and creation in our own language and according to our own way. We will all be together and will love, respect and honor each other and rejoice in our diversity. That day will be moment when in the words of the Prophet Zachariah, “God will be one and God’s name one.”

This vision became a reality, at least for a moment, at the gathering of the religious leaders on Friday morning, Sept. 25, at the site of the World Trade Towers, at the Ground Zero, in the Foundation Hall of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Approximately 600 representatives of all the religious traditions in the United States joined Pope Francis in an hour in prayer and reflection. This beautiful service expressed the Sukkot message that we can all gather to worship and celebrate our unity and rejoice in our diversity.

What was said was beautiful, but the symbolism of the event was far more powerful. The hall was full of faith leaders from all world religions, many dressed in their traditional vestments—Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Native American spiritual leaders.

On the bima, the podium, were representatives from all the major traditions. Each tradition presented a reading on peace from its sacred scripture, first in the original language and then in English translation. Then, Cantor Azi Schwartz, of the Park Avenue Synagogue chanted a special version of the Jewish memorial prayer, “The One Who is Full of Compassion,” for those who died on 9/11/2001 and all the victims of terror—people who died at the hands of people blinded by hate.

At the end of prayer, the cantor sang “Oseh Shalom,” a wellknown Hebrew melody asking God to grant peace to the world. His magnificent voice filled the room, but under his voice and unheard by those watching TV was the quiet undertone of the entire congregation of religious leaders singing softly with him—a quiet prayer for peace.

And then Pope Francis rose to speak. The Pope is a plain speaker. When he speaks, he speaks from his heart, in his native Spanish. His words are simple and direct. His voice is quiet but powerful.

He spoke to us in Spanish— simple words expressing basic truths—the beauty of people from so many faith traditions praying together, the sadness that the memorial expressed, our pain at the loss of so many souls, and the fact that all the people who perished on that day were represented by the various religious traditions that were gathered that morning at the Memorial Museum.

Although I cannot remember the Pope’s exact words, the message that I heard was that peace for which we so earnestly seek can only grow out of a celebration of our unity as members of the human community—all children of God and of our wondrous diversity—testimony to the power of the Creator.

This is now Sukkot. On this holiday we commit ourselves to the vision of a world at peace, in which all people learn to understand each other, to respect each other, and to love each other in all our diversity. This is also the message that I took home from my encounter with Pope Francis at the multi-religious gathering at the 9/11Museum. Far beyond the real thrill of seeing the Pope, was the thrill being with teachers and shepherds of all America’s religious traditions as we together with Pope Francis bore witness to the promise of peace. May this promise be fulfilled right away and very soon; Amen. .

Rabbi Lewis J. Eron is the Jewish Community Chaplain and Rabbi at Lions Gate Continuing Care Retirement Community in Voorhees.

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