· Vatican City ·

Pope Francis’ Via Crucis in Saint Peter’s Square on Good Friday evening

Rita, the cross
and the children

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09 April 2021

At night in Saint Peter’s Square, Rita walks with her head held high, clasping the wooden Cross in her hands. Rita is used to addressing “crosses” as “you”, to the point that she does not even consider them to be “crosses” but “natural”. And perhaps she is right. A week ago she turned 39 and she is here tonight, raising her head and the Cross, in Saint Peter’s Square, in front of Pope Francis.

Rita has Down syndrome.

But that is not why she is representing her parish community of the Holy Martyrs of Uganda, in the Ardeatino neighbourhood of Rome tonight. She is representing it — and in her own right — because she is a point of reference for the people in her neighbourhood. In fact, and not because of easy symbols or petty rhetoric. But how can it be that the “discarded” become the “cornerstones” that support “the whole”? Apart from the Gospel, if one can say that, all it takes is a parish priest who seriously believes it and understands that there is no present and no future if the most vulnerable people are excluded or if they are regarded as “recipients of services”. Good Friday is probably the best day to remember this.

Rita Minischetti carried the Cross from the Fifth to the Sixth Stations of the Via Crucis presided by Pope Francis on the evening of 2 April, on the parvis of the Vatican basilica.

And yes, Rita, with her usual shoulder bag, is not “different”, she looks “quite good for having an extra chromosome”. She is a beautiful woman, just as she is. In the middle of the Via Crucis, in Saint Peter’s Square, she thought of encouraging her friend Dustin Lopez with an exchange of glances and accompanying gestures when it was his turn to carry the Cross. The boy from Ecuador, who will turn 14 on 21 April, like Rita and other particularly vulnerable people, lives in the rectory of the Holy Martyrs of Uganda with the parish priest Father Luigi D’Errico.

Just like last year, due to the pandemic, — when the key figures were inmates from the “Due Palazzi” prison in Padua and the staff of the Health and Hygiene Directorate of the Governorate of Vatican City State — the rite presided by the Pope was held in Saint Peter’s Square and not in the traditional setting of the Colosseum.

The youths, taking turns carrying the Cross and the torches as well as reading the Fourteen Stations, were the authors of the texts of the meditations: youth from the agesi “Foligno I” Scout Group and children from the catechism class in Rita’s parish. With them, accompanied by their teachers, were children and young people from Rome’s Mater Divini Amoris and Il Tetto Casal Fattoria foster homes who made the drawings to illustrate the meditations.

The names and surnames of these children show a history of migration and marginalization. Their faces “speak” of neglect. But their expressions and smiles are open to the hope of having a better life than that of their parents. What strikes one first of all is the trust they have in their teachers, Sisters and laity: stretching out their hands for safety, reassurance. Yes, they are travelling companions on a true, daily Via Crucis, which does not last just one evening.

Broadcast worldwide, the rite presided by the Pope began at 9.00 pm . The procession with the Cross, “escorted” by two torches, started from the obelisk in the centre of Saint Peter’s Square to reach the parvis, through a suggestive torch-lit pathway. The lights outlined a huge Cross, in keeping with the wide-open “arms” of Bernini’s colonnade, stretched out to women and men, wherever they live.

At the Fourteenth and last Station a little girl called Selvaggia, born on 1 January 10 years ago, — in a fuchsia jacket with her hands in her pockets to overcome her shyness — (she only pulled them out when she had to be the “Cross-bearer”) — handed the Cross over to the Pope who, at the end, imparted the Apostolic Blessing. And just as they were leaving the Square, four children from the two foster homes ran to hug Francis who greeted them affectionately.

Among those present, were nine Cardinals, including Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, as well as Archbishops Edgar Peña Parra, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, and Jan Romeo Pawłowski, Secretary for Pontifical Representations. With them, on the parvis, were also representatives of the four groups that enlivened the Via Crucis. And the young Swiss Guards, standing nearby, will certainly have found in these testimonies greater motivation for the service they are carrying out. Lastly, the Sistine Chapel Choir performed the singing.

Moreover, at 9:37 pm , on Friday 2 April, somehow an “extra” presence was felt: that of Saint John Paul II, with his personal testimony of the Via Crucis, as he passed away exactly 16 years ago.

Giampaolo Mattei