On Friday September 25, I joined 500 faith leaders to participate in "A Witness to Peace: A Multi-Religious Gathering with Pope Francis" at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center. "If it comes down to a photo or a handshake, I'm going for the handshake," I told Tricia Straine MacGregor, who lost her husband James J. Straine Jr. on that ill-fated day.
After meeting privately with families of those who had lost loved ones in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, Pope Francis retreated to a room where there is a cross made out of the debris from the wreckage and prayed alone for a long time. When he walked into a cavern with cameras firing, he was joined on stage by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York and faith leaders from the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions. Pope Francis offered a heart-felt prayer in a somber tone:
God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world: peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth. Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred and who justify killing in the name of religion .... Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope, and give us the wisdom and courage to work tirelessly for a world where true peace and love reign among nations and in the hearts of all.
I was deeply moved in my spirit when the Pope prayed, feeling my soul being restored. Since I had lost my job at Fidelity Investments on September 11 and volunteered down on Ground Zero, there has been a hole in my heart, but as the Pope prayed I felt it being filled up with the tender mercy of God's love. As the Young People's Chorus of New York City sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth," a spirit of joy began to fill the room. The Psalmist says "You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing" (Psalm 30:11).
After the Holy Father offered the Sign of Peace, he departed with an entourage coming right down my aisle. After taking a few photos, I made eye contact with him and he smiled. When Pope Francis came over to shake my hand, I said "Most Holy Father, my name is Peter and I want to thank you for fiercely fighting for peace and justice." Gently pulling me toward him with his arm trembling, Pope Francis said "Pray for me, Pietro, Pray for me." I will pray for Pope Francis each day for he is a person of prayer and a pastor of all. As he called us to be prophets of peace, I thought of the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
In Micah's challenge he identifies three practices of prophetic ministry: doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbling with our God. In Hebrew poetry this three-fold literary device is called a chiasm, where the punch is in the middle. So for Micah, it's merciful love that is the heart of our prophetic vocation. In the spirit of Micah, Pope Francis calls us to be missionaries of mercy in a broken world: "Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord." Mercy is the fundamental attribute of God and is the heart beat of faith.
Pope Francis embodies the tenderness of God's mercy. From comforting families who lost loved ones on September 11 in New York City to proclaiming hope to the prisoners in Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, Pope Francis has embodied God's tender mercy. In his speeches at the White House, the Joint Session of the United States Congress, and on Independence Mall, Pope Francis has called on Americans to work for racial justice, economic equity, religious freedom, immigration reform, abolition of the death penalty, and "building our common home." (Laudato Si', 13).
Rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the teachings of Jesus, Pope Francis' vision of merciful justice both challenges and inspires Americans to practice what we preach. From our encounter with the tender caress of mercy, a profound and lasting joy is born in our hearts. Through shaking hands with the Pope I encountered the tender mercy of God and was encouraged to go out and share with others the everlasting love of God. When Pope Francis asked me to pray for him he exhibited great humility, the third of Micah's virtues after mercy and justice. The Holy Spirit is the deep well of Pope Francis' spiritual power. Pope Francis calls on each one of us, sinners saved by grace, to be sent out to be missionaries of mercy bringing healing and hope to all God's children.
Through the Apostolic Visit of Pope Francis, America has been touched by the mercy of God, yet how will we translate this feeling of solidarity into caring for our common home? I for one will do my part, waking up each morning and praying for Pope Francis and the poor, seeking to be a missionary of mercy through fiercely fighting for justice for all. May each of us offer our gifts and graces to build "a world where true peace and love reign among nations and in the hearts of all."