On Friday, September 25, Pope Francis visited Ground Zero in New York City to pay respect for life and to pray for healing and peace. Many Christians have expressed dismay that the pope did not mention the name of Jesus at this occasion. Some have specifically stated that he actually proved that he was a religious pluralist who does not believe that Jesus Christ is the true Savior of the world. This entire debate is often absent both the context and the content of his actual words and actions. The pope’s entire address can be read here: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/september/documents/papa-francesco_20150925_usa-ground-zero.html
Pope Francis said:
I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable. The water we see flowing towards that empty pit reminds us of all those lives which fell prey to those who think that destruction, tearing down, is the only way to settle conflicts. It is the silent cry of those who were victims of a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge. A mindset which can only cause pain, suffering, destruction and tears.
I went to this site last July (2014). I have never read words that better reflect precisely how I felt at Ground Zero when I looked at the two huge pools of water in the pit where the Twin Towers once stood. What Pope Francis decried was not Islam, and rightly so, but rather “a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge.” This distinction is immensely important for peacemakers. And it is immensely important that we not connect this act of terror and murder to Islam.
Today I shared the day with a friend who is a priest. My friend was there in the underground museum with the pope on that Friday. He expressed to me the sense of awe that he felt in that incredible place. If you’ve been there you know this scene and you have a hard time explaining what you feel in anything remotely like propositions. You are struck by awe and a sense of silence overwhelms you.
This can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven. Here, in this place of remembrance, I would ask everyone together, each in his or her own way, to spend a moment in silence and prayer. Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all. Simply PEACE. Let us pray in silence.
After a moment of silence the pope concluded with these words:
In this way, the lives of our dear ones will not be lives which will one day be forgotten. Instead, they will be present whenever we strive to be prophets not of tearing down but of building up, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of peace.
So far as I can tell those Christians who criticize the pope for these kinds of remarks, and for his presence with representatives of major religions in this ceremony, offer two major reasons:
- He is standing in complete (or subtle) agreement in matters of faith and practice by standing with other religious leaders.
- He is compromising his role as a Christian shepherd by not using Jesus’ name in his words and prayer.
I find both of these criticisms unconvincing for three reasons:
- The Catholic Church has already agreed (cf. Vatican II) on a great deal of common concern between religions. The decree Nostra Aetate did not give away the Christian faith but rather recognized that there are elements of truth in all faiths that can be expressed in good will. Nostra Aetate is clearly not teaching that all roads lead to Christ but rather than all truth comes from God and whatever truth each religion possesses thus comes from God. This will not please those who want to hear that every religion is “the doctrine of demons” or that non-Christian faiths are totally and entirely false. There is room for continued dialogue about how this works in practice and how it lines up with Scripture. I freely grant this room for continued discussion. But this much is clear, at least if you read the teaching of the Catholic Church correctly, the pope is not compromising his confidence in Christ as the Lord and Savior of the world.
- The pope is not giving away his role as a Christian pastor but rather he is underscoring his role as a Christian peacemaker because of the teaching of Jesus who blessed “peacemakers.” Further, he is living by the Golden Rule and showing how a Christian should respond in the face of great human evil when they are in a religious context where all grieve together. If you read The Joy of the Gospel you will readily see that Pope Francis is a very strong preacher of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
- Finally, Pope Francis appropriately serves the whole of humanity in the name of Christ and God’s mercy, not condemnation. His very presence, as the Bishop of Rome, puts him in a unique position where the world already knows that he is the servant of Christ and his people. There is a time and a place under heaven for everything and in this context to overtly preach as an evangelist would be unfaithful to the spirit and love of Jesus. I realize proof-texting will lead to a different conclusion but this is precisely why proof-texting is dangerous to the gospel. Pope Francis clearly understands this and his words and actions reveal it consistently. I thus cannot accept these kinds of criticisms made about this address and the prayer Pope Francis offered in this public context.