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.