Praying without priests on 9/11

CHIP EAST REUTERS The World Trade Center Cross, made of intersecting steel beams found in the rubble of buildings destroyed … Continued



The World Trade Center Cross, made of intersecting steel beams found in the rubble of buildings destroyed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, is raised by a crane before being transported and lowered into an opening in the World Trade Center site below ground level where it will become part of the permanent installation exhibit in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, in New York, July 23, 2011.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has ruled out clergy leading prayers at the 10th anniversary commemoration of 9/11 at the site of Ground Zero. Instead, stated the Mayor, the victims’ families and survivors can say their own prayers or quote from scriptures: clergy or First Responders can do so at other events. Jumping to the conclusion that only the clergy can pray, the American Family Association, considers the mayor’s decision to be “an insult to God,” conveniently adding an email address for donations. The right-wing echo chamber picked up on the orchestrated protest. Ms. C. M. Flowers at the Philadelphia Daily News broadsides her insight that this is “a brownnose gift to the PC crowd,” dubbing Bloomberg “Mayor Agnostic.” Professing that clergy prayers never intrude on public events, Dr. Donohue of the Catholic League forgets the Lutheran minister expelled from his church for participating at a Yankee Stadium event that allowed a Muslim to pray publicly. The ire of these protesters, I think, proves the wisdom of the mayor’s decision to keep religion from fanning political partisanship.

9/11 was not a religious event. The bombers of the World Trade Center in New York and intended attacks on other symbols of US power pursued terrorist aims, not religious ones. Similarly, public commemorations of this attack are not so much moments to worship God, as they are invitations to reflect on human mortality and humanity’s capacity for transcendent meaning. It is simply not true that only the clergy can express this transcendent meaning and give it a definable shape. I think it entirely proper that the religious experience of those who actually died or survived is celebrated rather than clerical sermonizing about it. Besides, choosing who represents religion today has become a thorny issue, especially for the churches we used to simply call “Protestant.” When the list includes newer definitions like “evangelical, Pentecostal, Mormon, mainline, Christian” it gets too long.

It used to be that we Catholic lay persons found it difficult to pray without priests or rote memorizing. While others could close their eyes, hold hands and come up with beautiful prayers before meals, we often would lapse into a predictable, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts….” The Catholic Charismatic Movement has done much to change that. We are less likely today to depend on the clergy to do praying for us and we reach out for spirituality to shape our worship. Personal prayer witnesses to the holiness for laity that Blessed John Paul II called “the New Evangelization.” We have an obligation, moreover, to evangelize cultures and not just convert individuals to joining the Catholic Church.

I don’t think we have to be “denominational” to achieve spiritual meaning. Consider for instance that the new buildings and memorials at Ground Zero are constructed to allow a wedge of sunlight every September 11th to shine at 8:46 AM on the footprint of the destroyed North Tower. It is a use of nature not unlike the way Egyptians and Mayans constructed pyramids in line with astronomical predictions of sunlight. There is also a pear tree replanted in the square after surviving the rubble of 9/11. These symbols should not be easily dismissed.

Some might complain that the sun and a tree are not as obviously religious as the cross formed by two steel beams that survived the bombing. But then again, the cross is a specific religious symbol that is not embraced by all. While it is part of the museum, the wedge of light and the pear tree are parts of the plaza.

Catholic America should not be upset. In our creed at Mass, we profess that “God, the Father Almighty” is “Maker of heaven and earth.” These religious symbols that are in the public square being constructed in New York City may not express the fullness of Catholic belief, but they are welcome steps away from pure secularism. They do not need a priest, minister, rabbi or imam to make them spiritual and public. Moreover, they effectively perpetuate a message of transcendence beyond our finite individual humanity. The religious experience of 9/11 does not need the words of clergy to be understood.

  • david6

    Thank you for speaking out against the sectarians who want to hijack the 9/11 memorials for their own personal use.

  • ThomasBaum

    Anthony Stevens-Arroyo

    You wrote, “9/11 was not a religious event. The bombers of the World Trade Center in New York and intended attacks on other symbols of US power pursued terrorist aims, not religious ones.”

    And just what do you suppose those “terrorist aims” were and still are?

  • 617patrick

    Catholics should focus on stopping their priests from raping children. There are cases continuing THIS YEAR in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Ireland, and dozens of other places around the world. There should be a full FBI investigation into the cover up.

    In New York, a 16 year old girl comes forward because a priest is massaging her inappropriately. What is a priest doing massaging a child? Ever?

    As soon as she does, the Catholic League discredits her, and Archbishop Dolan publishes it on his blog. The two biggest voices in the Catholic church in the US gang up on a 16 year old girl.

    No, we don’t need your prayers, Catholic church. You don’t speak for God.

  • usapdx

    In the human life since religions came about, what percent of human attacking human events root cause is religion? Humans worship the same GOD but by different religions. So now, this difference is worth the disagreement? The current RCC could use some sorting out within it’s self.

  • msgr

    Of course the clergy are not the only ones who can pray. But at an official service commemorating the victim’s deaths and the valiant first responders who died (first responders were primarily Catholic by the way), it seems only natural that official representatives of the faith be present–unless one is a rampant secularist whose contempt for religion seeks to ban its presence in public life.

  • jflare29

    So, in spite of foolish and angry voices, we manage the sense to ask a priest, a rabbi, a minister, or someone religious for prayer for Inauguration, opening the Congress, and for public events for July 4th, Memorial Day, and various other days, none of which have a precise religious focus, but are recognized as occasions in which we might have need for wisdom from something or someone greater than humans.

    But to commemorate 9/11, we can’t utter a peep in public?
    So, on the day when we’d be VERY well advised to pray for repentance, for forgiveness, for peace from all sides, we can’t utter a prayer in public?

    That’s pure nonsense!

    I think if I lived in New York, I’d refuse to attend any public commemoration until Bloomberg and company can get over themselves.
    To those who’ll howl about my “imposing my beliefs” upon you: Such charges are severely hypocritical. I’ve been forced to tolerate your prejudice for a VERY long time.
    I’d like to be allowed to pray without being hindered by your attitudes.

  • jflare29

    Seems to me this comment demonstrates the precise reason why all persons need prayers more than ever. You seem to offer no charity, but hateful intolerance.
    Don’t you know that’s precisely the kind of attitude that helped inspire 9/11 in the first place?!
    How much dignity do you think you’ll inspire with a statement like this? Be angry about the abuses of the past, yes. But don’t use that as an excuse to express bigotry and malice now.

    You don’t appear to me to speak for God any better than that priest you accuse….

  • irishsmile

    “9/11 was not a religious event”, you state. Many, if not most Americans would strongly disagree with you, Mr. Arroyo. Additionally, referring to those with whom you disagree with as “right-wing echo chamber” is demeaning to the discussion. As a Catholic myself, let me assure you that I see the 9/11 ceremonies as a time when I shall humbly add my prayers to other Americans and not make excuses for those who attempt to secularize even memorials for the dead.

  • irishsmile

    Another anti-Catholic diatribe! The vast majority of priests are faithful, good men who give their entire lives to the church with little worldly reward. Yet you paint them all with the same brush as the small percentage of abusers. Shame.

  • iDeacon

    Catholic Cathedrals and Churches, along with Protestant houses of prayer were filled to the brim for quite some time following 9/11. I suppose none of those people felt they needed clergy to pray with them and for them and their families. Why didn’t they just gather together in the local square to pray together or stay at home and pray privately? I’m guessing they didn’t seek out Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, 617patrick, or david6 to pray with them and for them and their loved ones now did they? No, of course not! Bloomberg’s decision is ridiculous and this author’s support of that decision is laughable. But then again, he loves to bash the Catholic Church whenever he can.

    Christ established what we now call the Catholic Church and it was He who decided to appoint priests to carry on his work on earth of preaching, teaching, and healing. Bllomberg, the author, and those of their ilk seek to prevent Christ’s priests from offering prayers of healing at a time when they could be so very efficacious. They have to answer for that one day, not us.

    Christ told us it would be this way so we’re not surprised in the least. God understands. One thing that is often ignored in these days of “tolerance” and “political correctness” is that God is BOTH merciful AND just!!!

  • YEAL9

    What we have learned about religion post 9/11 in summary form:

    Please post on your refrigerator doors:




    Added details upon request.