NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- The National September 11 Memorial & Museum has opened its doors to heads of state, Medal of Honor recipients and most importantly the families of those lost.
But Pope Francis represents the highest and holiest profile visitor to date. The Holy Father arrived at the museum late Friday morning after addressing world leaders at the United Nations.
"What this pope represents, the platform that he speaks to, not only the billion Catholics around the world, but just the way the entire world has gravitated towards him, for him to choose to come to ground zero to this museum and have a multireligious service is absolutely incredible," museum president Joe Daniels told CBS2's Chris Wragge.
Pope Francis Holds Interfaith Service At 9/11 Memorial & Museum
Pope Francis presided over services in Foundation Hall alongside the Slurry Wall and the Last Column.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan opened the service by highlighting New York City's "atmosphere of respect and appreciation for religious diversity."
"We -- who have the honor of pasturing our people -- we work together, we pray together, we meet together, we talk to one another, and we try to serve as one, the city we are proud to call our earthly home while awaiting our true and eternal residence in heaven," Dolan said.
Pope Francis Holds Interfaith Service At 9/11 Memorial & Museum
About a dozen religious leaders from the Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Hindu and other faiths stood behind the pope as he prayed at the opening of the service.
The Holy Father asked God for eternal peace for those killed, as well as healing for the relatives of the victims. He prayed to God to bring "peace to our violent world'' and "to turn to your way of love'' those who justify killing in the name of religion.
Francis' prayer was followed by meditations of peace led by religious leaders from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim faiths, some of which were read in sacred tongues while others were in English.
Ahead of Francis' formal remarks, a cantor sang a Jewish prayer in honor for the victims of the attacks.
"I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction," Pope Francis said. "Here grief is palpable."
As WLNY's Alice Gainer reported, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced the pope to relatives who lost loved ones in the attacks.
The pope listened intently to their words and gave a tender touch to the children.
The pontiff spoke of how meeting the families of the victims reminded him of how acts of violence are never impersonal.
"In those family members, we see the face of pain, a pain which still touches us and cries out to heaven," Francis said.
But in the face of that pain, the pope said he saw another side to the attacks. Speaking of the power of love and remembrance, the pope said he saw "a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of."
"When the firefighters were running up the stairs to save 20 to 25,000 people that day, nobody cared about what religion you are, what socioeconomic class, what ethnicity," Daniels said ahead of the service. "Afterwards everyone just came together so to be here in Foundation Hall with this pope with a representative of the Jewish religion, of the Muslim religion, of Hindu, of all these different religions on one stage sends a huge message to the world."
The Holy Father urged the world to build peace from its differences.
"I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world," the pontiff said. " ... In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity."
Closing out the service, the Young People's Chorus of NYC sang "Let There Be Peace On Earth."
Prior to the service, the pope paused at the memorial in front of 1,000 invited guests and honored the 2,983 whose lives were lost on 9/11.
Francis prayed silently and laid a white rose at the edge of the south pool, inscribed with the names of those killed in the attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field, as well as in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The pontiff spent about 15 minutes speaking to 11 families who lost loved ones in the attacks and gave each family a box of rosary beads.
"This pope represents so much unity and peace for this world we live in today and we need all the peace and love we can get," said Monica Iken-Murphy, whose husband, Michael Patrick Iken, died inside the south tower.
Pope Francis Speaks With 9/11 Families
In the 14 years since she lost her brother, John, in the attacks on the World Trade Center, Anthoula Katsimatides has met three presidents and now came face to face with the pope.
"I feel blessed that I will be graced with the presence of the pope, it's pretty bittersweet because the only reason I'm meeting the pope is because I lost my brother on Sept. 11 and I would trade that in just to see John for a few minutes," Katsimatides told 1010 WINS' Glenn Schuck ahead of the service.
Katsimatides said she planned to show Pope Francis a picture of her brother and say, "This is John; please bless his soul."
Following the service, Francis was escorted into the museum area to see artifacts of faith.
"After the service we want to show the pope a few specific artifacts," Daniels said. "There's a couple that stand out and speak to faith."
On March 30, 2002, a firefighter searching for victims discovered a hardly recognizable bible fused to a piece of steel.
All that is legible are a few passages, most notably, Matthew, Chapter 5 "an eye for an eye" followed by "resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
"This bible, this passage where it's just retaliation and love, fused to a piece of World Trade Center steel, it's absolutely incredible and I really want the pope to see it," Daniels said.
An item so perfect, so improbable, it's impossible to not question the artifact's authenticity.
"We have great museum curators to make sure the provenance is checked and that it's a real thing because you couldn't imagine something so perfect," Daniels said.
Also on display is the World Trade Center cross.
"In front of the cross you see what we call symbol steel ... where iron workers during the recovery cut out crosses, cut out Stars of David, symbols of the tower," Daniels said. "It all speaks to this notion that during that terrible nine months people were looking to hold on to little parts of faith and nothing represents that better than the World Trade Center cross."
Before the pope left, Governor Cuomo presented him with a cross made of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center's twin towers.
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