Two days after Yom Kippur, Pope Francis stood behind a Jewish cantor and listened to him pray. At least one priest chanted along as Azi Schwartz sang oseh shalom at the 9/11 memorial in New York City: “May the One who causes peace to reign in the high heavens let peace descend on us and on all Israel, and let us say, amen.”
This was striking moment, and not because the singing sounded like a Gregorian chant, as one Catholic News Agency commentator clumsily observed several times. Though the pope’s visit clearly served as the impetus for the gathering, he wasn’t really the star; he listened solemnly as roughly a dozen Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders offered prayers and reflections in commemoration of the September 11 attacks. At all other times during his trip to the United States, Francis has been front and center. It was at this moment, when he was flanked by peers who hold different beliefs, that Francis chose to fade into the background a bit.
Loss was a clear theme for the service, but there seemed to be a deeper argument behind the gathering. “Here, the grief is palpable,” Francis said. “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.” This was a memorial gathering, but it was also a protest against religious extremism. And it was all the more fascinating because of its pluralism: religious leaders who are deeply committed to their version of metaphysical truth, but who have found a common enemy in extremism.