PHILADELPHIA — The eyes of the world will be on Pope Francis when he makes a visit to the western hemisphere next month, stopping first in Cuba before heading north to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. But his stop at the Ground Zero memorial in NYC amid commemoration of the deaths of thousands due to terrorism has been described by organizers as an "extremely important event for the world."
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with survivors and family members of those killed in the World Trade Center attacks, which claimed the lives of 2,606 people. Those slain were mostly New Yorkers but among them were visitors hailing from the United Kingdom, Dominican Republic, South Korea, India, and dozens of other countries. More than 400 of those killed when the Twin Towers fell were law enforcement officials and firefighters who were among first responders when al-Qaida-linked terrorists crashed commercial airliners into each tower.
That Sept. 25 meeting with 9/11 families will be held outside by the twin reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in downtown Manhattan, Helen Osman, secretary of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained during a briefing about the pope's U.S. visit with reporters Friday.
"Then, inside, he will go to what we're calling a multi-religious event. Members, representatives from not just the major religions but others…. About 700 individuals will be in Foundation Hall," Osman said.
"The backdrop of that event is the slurry wall which stood after the towers fell. The fact that that wall stood, saved so many more lives. It could have been even more of a tragic event," she added. "That backdrop, while representatives of all of these religions and faiths are gathered there, it's just a hugely symbolic setting. So I think that will be an extremely important event for the world."
The slurry wall, part of the foundation of the World Trade Center, has stood as a symbol of survival after escaping destruction and helping to prevent further calamity from the nearby Hudson River during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "Because the slurry wall held, the 70-foot-deep foundation did not fill with groundwater. And because of that, the PATH (commuter rail system) tubes were not submerged. And because of that, the subway tunnels below the PATH tubes were not inundated," The New York Times wrote in a feature about the architects of the World Trade Center.
The pope's visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum's Foundation Hall, where the slurry wall is kept along with the final standing column from the site, occurs two weeks after official observance of the 14th anniversary of the attacks. In this way, the religious leader of more than a billion Roman Catholic's presence at Ground Zero might prove especially poignant for some observers, including the untold numbers globally who are expected to take part in Pope Francis' U.S. visit via livestream and television broadcasts.
While in New York City, Pope Francis will participate in evening prayers at St. Patrick's Cathedral, address the United Nations General Assembly, visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, and hold Mass at Madison Square Garden. There was also speculation that the pope would make a trip to Central Park. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, overseeing the pontiff's stateside visit, reports that Francis is the fourth pope to travel to the U.S. and that his "visit will be the tenth time a pope has made an apostolic journey" to the U.S.
The Sept. 22-27 trip to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, where he will attend the 2015 World Meeting of Families, marks Francis' first-ever visit to the U.S. since the 78-year-old Argentinian Jesuit was chosen as pope in 2013. His trip to the U.S. is preceded by a three-day visit to Cuba where he is expected to meet with President Raul Castro and local families. Learn more about the papal visit at uspapalvisit.org.