Vanity Fair, September 25, 2015
Security has been robust, shall we say, around Chambers Street this morning: Pope Francis is in the neighborhood. But then security is always robust in these parts nowadays, and in a sense, “security” as we now know it—concrete bulwarks and steel blades that rise from slots in the street; the taking of I.D.s and the photographing of prospective entrants to office-building lobbies; the men with earpieces striding purposefully nowhere—all this apparatus, fully on view in Francis’s U.S. visit, started with what happened here.
Francis is due to arrive at 11:30 A.M. I arrive at 9:45, lock up my bike, pass through the security gauntlet at One World Trade Center, and go up to Vanity Fair’s offices on the 41st floor, where the view will be as clear as anything on TV.
The event, as the Vatican press office described it, is an “interreligious encounter at the Ground Zero memorial,” and in a key way it’s unlike anything else in Francis’s U.S. visit. So far, he has gone to churches and civic settings, the gathering spaces of a free society: the White House, the Mall, the Capitol, the cathedral and basilica in Washington, the cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York. These are places where invocations are raised and homilies are given, where handshakes are proffered and speeches are made, and on Francis’s visit, these are places where the faithful—from weepy House Speaker John Boehner to an intrepid five-year-old girl on the Mall—come to hear Pope Francis, but especially to see him with their own eyes and to take his picture.
Ground Zero is different, and so is this event. This place is not, first of all, a civic gathering space and never will be. This is not a place, like the White House or the Capitol, where history has intermittently been made. This is a place where something happened. It’s sacred ground, and not because somebody consecrated it and decreed it so, but because of what transpired here—because of the power of events to invest places with significance.
In the hours after the World Trade Center was destroyed by Islamist terrorists, all of downtown Manhattan felt like sacred ground. The ashy air. The first responders (a term that entered the vernacular by the attacks, it seems to me) rushing into the fray, and the aides and E.M.T. workers standing expectantly at St. Vincent’s for the thousands of wounded who never came. The surge of volunteerism, of people yearning to help other people. And especially (to my mind) the fliers and invocations to the missing that went up everywhere, which represented an incredible outpouring of what Flannery O’Connor called “do-it-yourself religion.” Writing at the time, I took note of “fliers bearing photos; flags; peace signs; votive candles made out of plastic cups (which they lit in the open air, still smelling of burning ash from the disaster site); laser-printed maxims from the Bible and the Qur’an, from St. Francis and Walt Whitman; placards blending pictures of the towers with saints and archangels—all this, emerging overnight, made clear that even in an apparently secular city people still conceive of grief and loss in frankly religious terms and in terms of their own devising.
“In the week after the catastrophe,” I wrote, “downtown Manhattan seemed a scene of unfettered American religiosity, more like Calcutta or Dharamsala than a ‘secular city.’ And for once this religious home brew didn’t seem mawkish or exploitative. It seemed authentic and appropriate.”
Yes, something significant happened here. Francis comes here not to speak, or to be seen, so much as to see the place for himself. He comes, that is, as a pilgrim. He’ll pray at the reflecting pool where the South Tower once stood and then enter the 9/11 Memorial Museum to pray with other believers: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh.
Yesterday, addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Francis organized his remarks around the lives of four great American figures. Speaking to our elected representatives, he put forward “four representatives of the American people”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton—two certified great Americans, and two great American Catholics who made the search for God and holiness in the modern world seem a particularly American adventure.
Those four representative figures did much of their work in New York City, and the sites associated with them are within the omnidirectional view of One World Trade Center. Up and to the east behind a stand of skyscrapers old and new is the Great Hall of Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas on the institution of slavery. Over there, too, on East First Street, is St. Joseph House, the latest of the many storefronts where people have been fed, clothed, and made welcome by members of the Catholic Worker, the movement Dorothy Day founded with Peter Maurin in 1933—and where she and they have followed what Francis called “her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed . . . inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.” On East Third Street is Maryhouse, the reconstituted tenement house where Day died in 1980; it’s still a place of welcome for what Francis called “the stranger in our midst.”
In the West Village is 35 Perry Street, the apartment where Thomas Merton, a graduate student at Columbia, sat on the fire escape all through the summer of 1939 and kept a journal while listening with a heavy heart to radio reports of impending war in Europe. There he first considered entering into a Trappist monastery, and there he became a writer and a contemplative, an adept in “dialogue and openness to God,” as Pope Francis put it.
You can’t see it from here, but jutting out of the skyline at the island’s western edge is the spire of Riverside Church, where on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., in an especially great sermon, declared “a time to break silence” and speak out against the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Now, Francis is here, having come to Ground Zero, like his predecessor Benedict XVI, to try to find words and gestures worthy of what happened in this place. From the 41st floor, the site is in full view. The day is as sunny and clear as that day 14 years and two weeks ago. A prie-dieu, or kneeler, is set up at the northwest corner of the reflecting pool where Tower One once stood. Security officers—snipers, probably—are on the roof of the Memorial Museum.
“We must learn to be normal,” Francis has said. In many respects, the present media age—round-the-clock and global, with the ubiquity of personal on-the-go photographs and video taken for granted—can be said to have begun in the hours when the World Trade Center was destroyed. “Suddenly the purveyors and consumers of news belonged to a community of image hunters, image gatherers, and image seekers . . . sending eyewitness accounts to a single, vast, if ultimately fractured audience,” as Vanity Fair’s own David Friend explains in Watching the World Change, his book about the images of the September 11 attacks. The present age of mobile media spectacle has made a hero of Pope Francis; and the most notable aspect of his pontificate, it seems to me, is his authenticity in spite of it all—his ability to be “normal” in spite of (as I put it in my V.F. profile of Francis) “the pomp of the papacy, the crush of celebrity, and the expectations of the global church.” But it may be just as notable that after the paired scandals of religion in the first part of this century—terrorism committed in the name of Islamist extremism, and the Catholic bishops’ cover-up of sexual abuse of young people by priests—Francis has made the religious outlook seem normal, not deviant.
Ground Zero is a place which even a pope must approach as a normal person. And that suits Francis. Here he can be seen the way he has invited us to see him—as a normal person, a pilgrim on the path like the rest of us. He’s the one in white, the same size as everybody else.
This article was originally published in Vanity Fair.