An unseasonal cold snap in Rome kept Pope Francis from being physically present at the Colosseum on Holy Friday night for the Way of the Cross procession.
Considerations regarding his health after a three-day stay in hospital last week for a bronchitis, led to him having to follow events from his residence in the Vatican.
But his presence was tangible in the meditations he personally chose to remember the day of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In fact, each of the 14 stations of the cross featured the testimony and the prayers of men and women of our time, whom he has had occasion to meet and listen to during his many apostolic journeys, and who have experienced war, poverty, displacement and injustice in almost every corner of the globe.
The tradition of the Way of the Cross in the Colosseum began in the 18th century. It was re-instated in the 1960s and has since been celebrated every Good Friday — with a brief interlude due to the Covid-19 pandemic — in the magnificent Roman amphitheatre, and broadcast live to the world via radio and television.
In the presence of some 20,000 believers, the first station began with the prayer for enlightenment, a voice from the Holy Land that still suffers from the lack of peace in the world, and that echoes the cries of suffering people caught up in this “third world war being fought piecemeal.”
The solemn procession unwound in the night, giving voice to those who are forced to migrate, who endure the violence of traffickers and the indignity of detention centers; who risk their lives in dangerous sea crossings, who watch as their families, friends and countrymen and women are killed by firearms, missiles and mines. Who have the humility to pray the Lord to deliver them from hasty judgments and the easy condemnation of their neighbour.
Young people from Central America asked Jesus for the strength to take charge of their lives and reject the compromises of a corrupt society while a South American mother recalled the violence of a guerrilla attack that injured her child and led her to reflect on what “it must have been like for Mary to see Jesus’s face bruised and bloodied”. “In the disfigured faces of those who suffer”, she prayed, “Grant that we may recognize you, Lord Jesus!”
Migrants from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East described themselves as “wounded by hatred” and asked for forgiveness; at the sixth station a priest from the Balkan Peninsula recalled the terror of being brutally held a prisoner of war, and a Muslim woman, who “was to him what Veronica was to Jesus”: providence in the form of aid, food and hope. “Now until the end of my days,” he said, “I bear witness to the horrors of war and cry out: Never again war!”
Internally displaced teenagers asked for the strength to build bridges of fraternity and to bear witness to the Gospel, while the peace-loving people of South East Asia prayed for the conversion of those who traffic in weapons and spend money on armaments instead of food.
A missionary sister from Central Africa remembered the day terrorists attacked, killing family members, friends and colleagues. One of her Sisters disappeared and never came back, leaving “a valley of tears” and many questions. “My God, why have you abandoned me?” she asked, before understanding that Jesus’ love is the light amid the darkness. “Heal us, Lord Jesus”, she invoked, from the fear of being unloved, misunderstood, forgotten.
At the tenth station, it was the turn of two young boys: one from Ukraine, the other from Russia. The former spoke of the sadness of having to flee his home and being separated from his father who had to stay in Ukraine to fight. The latter told of the grief of losing his brother who died at the front and of the fear of war. “He spoke of “a sense of guilt” he doesn’t understand, and said: “Let us pray together that there may be peace in the world, let us all be brothers and sisters.”
A young person from the Near East recalled his calvary as he and his parents fled violence and faced perilous journeys until “locals welcomed us with open arms, understanding our hardships.” And then, a mother in West Asia told of the attack of terrorists on her community in which her young son, his cousin and her neighbour were killed. As survivors, she said, we “try to forgive our aggressor because Jesus forgave his executioners.” “Teach us” was her prayer, “to take the first step towards reconciliation.”
The thirteenth station gave voice to a nun from East Africa where one of her missionary Sisters was killed by rebels, and at the fourteenth station young girls from Southern Africa spoke of their plight when they were kidnapped by armed men who “stripped them of their clothes and dignity.” “Our province is still today a place of tears and pain,” they said. “We ask the Lord for the grace of a peaceful human coexistence.”
This 2023 Way of the Cross that laments the third world war fought piecemeal, as Pope Francis so often reminds us, concluded with 14 “thank yous” to the Lord Jesus, for having defeated death and for reconciling all divisions making us all brothers and sisters, children of the same Father.
For the complete text of the Way of the Cross: https://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2023
By Linda Bordoni