Saturday, 2:15 PM
NEW YORK -- Eighty feet below street level, surrounded by cranes, backhoes, pipes, and jagged rock, Pope Benedict XVI clasped the hands of survivors and relatives of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and asked God to "bring peace to our violent world."
Commemorating the dead where the World Trade Center once stood, the 81-year-old pontiff said not a word, save for his prayer for peace. The 30-minute ceremony was as brief as it was stark.
As a thick, cold fog shrouded lower Manhattan, the pope’s bullet-proof Mercedes descended to ground zero, down a ramp lined with the flags of the Vatican, New York City, New York State, New Jersey, and the Port Authority. At the base of the pit, a small crowd was assembled, including 16 relatives of the dead as well as a handful of city and Port Authority police officers and firefighters who had responded to the attacks.
Emerging from his vehicle wearing a white overcoat to stave off the cold, the pope walked into the center of the crowd. Silently, he knelt and prayed at a gold and white kneeler set before a pool of water and gravel. Then he lit a candle emblazoned with the papal seal and spoke his prayer aloud.
"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," he said, in part. "Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred."
After the prayer, the pope sprinkled holy water in four directions, blessing the site. Then Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York introduced the guests to the pope, one by one. They were men and women, with the officers in dress blues. Many knelt and kissed the pope’s ring or clasped his hands and spoke.
"Today was an incredible experience to get to actually talk to the pope and ask him to bless the ground that we’re on, because we lost so many beautiful people that day," said Salvatore Cassano, a New York City firefighter who is now chief of department and was incident commander on Sept. 11.
Casssano, who is 63 and a 39-year veteran of the department, said he kissed the pope’s ring and the pope told him: "God bless you and God bless the department."
"That was really important for us," he said in an interview afterward. "We suffered so many heavy losses, it was nice to get the personal blessing from the pope, directly, for the people that we lost and the people that are still helping to protect the city."
Desiree Gerasimovich of New Jersey, whose sister, Pamela Boyce, was working on the 92d floor of Tower One and was killed in the attack, also met the pope and kissed his ring. She called it a "wonderful moment, a surreal moment."
"I don’t know if you ever find closure, but days like this make it a little bit better," she said afterward. "A lot of people are trying to embrace this new pope, because everybody just knows John Paul, and him coming to this site and being here in New York shows how close he is to the people."
The Archdiocese of New York gave each of the 24 people who met the pope a rough-hewn cross made from steel salvaged from the towers and a white candle emblazoned with a papal seal.
"It was very moving in many ways," said Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, who played Bach suites as the pope entered ground zero. "It was moving to be down there. It was moving to be near the families of the victims. It was a little bit surreal, as well, to be in such close proximity to the pope. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
In addition to the relatives and survivors, cardinal and politicans witnessed the blessing. They included Governors Jon Corzine of New Jersey and David A. Paterson of New York and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York. All seemed moved.
"This was a very important moment for all New Yorkers," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said afterward. "This is sacred ground for New York and of course to have the pope visit it was very, very special for all of us, not just the people of the Catholic faith."
-- by Michael Levenson, Globe Staff.
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To read the full text of the pope's blessing at ground zero, click on "full entry."
This is the full text of the blessing Pope Benedict XVI offered at ground zero this morning:
"O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.
We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here-
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.
We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.
We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.
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.
God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
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."
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