The first Way of the Cross across the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo by Riro Maniscalco

Charity at Ground Zero

Downtown New York stopped for the Cross passing by. The Way of the Cross, traveling over the Brooklyn Bridge, arrived next to Ground Zero. Almost 3000 participants, the mayor’s greetings, and the testimony of one of New York’s firefighters.
Marco Bardazzi, Photos by James Leynse (AG. Contrasto)

The traffic was chaotic, as always. Busy people, deafening sirens, the noise of jackhammers working to rebuild a slice of the city devastated by terrorists. It was a typical early afternoon of a working Friday in Manhattan, the rushed, tired faces of people counting the hours until they can escape and take refuge in the nothingness of the weekend. Suddenly a wooden Cross emerged, followed by thousands of people, walking in silence. It was an overwhelming image, just as the image of Christ climbing up to Golgotha must have appeared one morning 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.

This time, the Cross did not turn around after traversing the Brooklyn Bridge, as it had done every Good Friday in the six years before. This year, it went into the heart of the city, attracting the attention of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who heard the unusual sound of Crux Fidelis under the windows of City Hall and came out to thank us for the gesture. It continued on its way, this apparently fragile piece of wood, passing from Jonathan Fields’ hands into those of Firefighter John Bartlett, headed straight for the crater of Ground Zero, the open wound in the middle of the financial capital of the world. It was followed by 2,500, maybe 3,000 people, just as many as had died on September 11th in the terrorist attack. Cross and Resurrection.

The traffic stopped, families of tourists asked for songbook copies and joined the procession, while the police looked on, amazed at the silent order of this strange crowd snaking its way through New York’s oldest streets, a few steps away from Wall Street and Broadway. “With a few pounds of wood and iron,” wrote a New York Times journalist the next day in a long article, trying to give sense to the presence of the Cross in this context, “they hoped to relieve some of the incomprehensible emotional weight resulting from the tangled steel, glass, and concrete at the site of the World Trade Center.”

Firefighter John
In reality, the provocation offered by the Cross and the presence of thousands of people who took up the proposal of the New York community of the CL Movement was much more profound. Firefighter John Bartlett, of Engine Company 167 on Staten Island, explained it in simple words in front of a jumble of TV microphones asking him what he felt as he carried that piece of wood to the place where 343 of his coworkers had died. “Christ’s life, death, and resurrection,” he said, “are the hope of all mankind and are just as real as the collapse of the World Trade Center. We cannot prove it scientifically, it is a question of faith, but I know that it is real like the collapse of those skyscrapers. It is a reality.”

The seventh year of CL’s Way of the Cross in New York made the six earlier editions seem like a long preparation to reach this exceptional moment, during the most difficult Easter that the city and the whole world have experienced in many years. The signs of what was about to happen on Good Friday were already visible in the weeks before. Lots of phone calls to the Movement office, participatory confirmations, even thanks in advance from the family members of the victims of September 11th, who had noticed the posters and flyers distributed in churches and public places. The decision to continue the traditional itinerary as far as St Peter’s Church, a short distance from Ground Zero, struck and touched many and attracted more than the usual attention of the media and the city authorities.

Who are you?
When the procession set out from St James Cathedral, in Brooklyn, accompanied by an unexpected sun and under the surveillance of a police helicopter, there was the immediate perception of taking part in an event destined to leave its mark on many hearts. Firefighter, police, and Port Authority (the city agency which had jurisdiction over the World Trade Center) uniforms mixed with the victims’ families and ordinary people who came from all over the city and other places as well. A Southold Fire Department bus brought dozens of people from the farthest tip of Long Island. Cars came from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania pulled up. When four busloads of faithful brought by Fr Luca from Massachusetts arrived, the cameramen of the numerous TV crews stationed in front of the basilica in Brooklyn stared in astonishment. “Who are you, to manage to organize something like this?” one of them asked.

The choir, directed by Chris Vath and Cas Patrick, immediately became the “glue” uniting in prayer the long procession of people that, falling in behind Jonathan and Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius A Catanello of Brooklyn, set out toward the oldest and best loved of New York’s bridges. When the Cross reached the first bridge pillar, the tail of the procession was still on the access ramp, hundreds of yards behind. “The last time so many people crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, a little more than six months ago, it was on a panicked exodus,” noted the New York Times. The terrified flight from the cloud of dust and death in Manhattan, on another sunny morning, came to mind with every step taken in the opposite direction from that of the crowd in September.

In front of City Hall
At the first pillar, with the cars whizzing past under the pedestrian walkway, while the loudspeaker system broadcast the Stabat Mater and Péguy’s words, the void in the sky where the Twin Towers once stood loomed painfully behind the Cross. Many thought back to the 2001 picture of the Way of the Cross, which appeared a few months ago on the cover of Traces (Vol 3, No 9). The station at the second pillar had to be eliminated in order to respect the schedule, which was thrown off almost immediately by the massive participation. At a marathon pace, the procession reached the other side of the East River and stopped in a large space outside New York’s City Hall. The Cross stopped in the nerve center of the city during one of the moments of its greatest traffic and activity. Attracted by the crowd and a powerful sound system, dozens of people stopped to listen to the songs and meditations, and many of them decided to join in the event.

Accompanied by a group of assistants and bodyguards, Mayor Bloomberg (a Jew who in January took the place of the Catholic Rudolph Giuliani) came out of the armored gates of City Hall and discreetly approached the microphone at the foot of the Cross. He waited in silence until Naomi Flansburg finished one of the readings, then was introduced to the crowd by John Touhey (who for hours split his time between the role of reader and that of spokesperson to be “thrown to the lions” of the TV cameras).

Bloomberg recalled the importance of the Passover and Easter period for Jews and Christians. "This time of year is a time to look back and a time to look forward,” the Mayor said. “We lost 400 people, men and women who ran against all instinct into burning buildings to save 25,000 others. That was the past. The future is what we're trying to build for them. Your group,” he said in closing, “is an example of the kind of devotion possessed by the people of this city.”

After the stop at City Hall, the Way of the Cross entered its most complex and moving segment. Leading a crowd like this to Ground Zero, on the clogged sidewalks of Manhattan, was a challenge for the most stout-hearted. Even the police, willing and incredibly kind, seemed perplexed. Angelo Sala and the group of organizers had studied the route and made inspection visits for weeks, but the result was difficult to predict, for one very simple reason: nobody had ever tried to do anything like this before.

In Bartlett’s hands
But when the Cross set out on its way, entrusted now to the hands of Firefighter Bartlett, everything seemed simple and linear. Once past Broadway–which remained paralyzed for more than a quarter of an hour–the police officer who was bringing up the rear of the procession approached one of the organizers and asked for a songbook. He exclaimed, “Do you know that you guys have really organized something great here today?”

For several hundred yards along Church Street, the Cross faced the construction site of Ground Zero. The procession went as far as it could toward the crater of the World Trade Center, then entered St Peter’s, the oldest Catholic church in New York (founded in 1785). It is a place charged with meaning. On September 11th, for example, the firefighters carried there and laid on the altar the body of their Catholic chaplain (the first person officially pronounced dead in the disaster), Fr Mychal Judge, killed in the first of the two collapsed towers as he was blessing someone who had died.

In front of that altar and a crowd that packed the entire church and spilled out onto the steps outside, Firefighter Bartlett received endless applause when he explained that if there is any meaning in the tragedy that struck the corps of firefighters, “it is only in the sacrificial element of the deaths of those men. It is only their sacrifice that has given those events a meaning and allows us to compare them to the transcendent sacrifice of the Cross.”

“Jesus experienced every kind of suffering,” said Bishop Catanello. “My death, your death, and the death of every human being has been experienced by Christ. And also the death of those who died in this place. After Christ, death is not the last word for man.”

Thanks to the sound system set up outside the church, the gentle notes of Qui presso a te and the words of passages from Fr Giussani’s writings reached all the way to the gaping hole of Ground Zero, defying the noise of the traffic and the construction equipment.

Hours later, in Brooklyn, a group of friends tried to ask themselves “while the iron was hot” about what had happened. “Today, for once, we were not ashamed to carry the Cross,” Angelo summed things up. “What we testified to the world, which was so striking, was nothing other than the relationship we have with Christ.”