Pope Francis, speaking at the end of the Way of the Cross at Rome’s Coliseum, prayed for the Christian men, women and children – “our brothers who are persecuted, beheaded and crucified for their faith in you (Jesus), before our eyes and often with our silent complicity.”
Tens of thousands of Romans and pilgrims stood, holding lighted candles, and applauded Pope Francis when he finished his short prayer-like homily after the hour-long service at the Coliseum on the evening of Good Friday, April 3. The event took place under stringent security measures, no doubt due to the fear of a terrorist attack.
The ceremony recalled the Way of the Cross of Jesus and linked it to the violence that so many Christians and other innocent people are suffering in a variety of ways today, some of these were mentioned in the meditations for the prayer-event, and included human trafficking, child abuse, slave-labor, unjust arrests and condemnations, torture and the death penalty, and persecution.
It was the third time that Pope Francis has presided over this deeply moving, simple, prayerful event. He first came here soon after his election in 2013, and also last year, following a tradition that dates back to the pontificate of Benedict XVI (1740-1758), who initiated this prayerful reflection at the Coliseum, an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome where many Christians suffered martyrdom.
The tradition was abandoned for a long period, but Paul VI revived it in 1964, and it has been continued ever since by his successors. Today the prayerful service not only attracts Romans and pilgrims from all continents, it has also become a global event followed by millions of people worldwide thanks to radio, television and the social media
Pope Francis asked the 79-year old emeritus bishop of Novara, Renato Corti,to write the meditations for this year’s event. The Italian prelate told Vatican Radio that he took his inspiration from the homily given by Francis on the day of his inauguration as pope, 19 March 2013, the feast of St Joseph, in which he spoke about the saint’s role as “protector” of Jesus and Mary.
He took this concept of “protection” or “care of” as the key to the mediations on the 14 stations of the cross, and reflected on how we are protected by God love, and especially by the Cross of Christ, and how our task as followers of Jesus is “to protect” and “to care for others”, for every person, especially the poorest, and for families and the entire creation. At the same time, he highlighted the great harm that comes to people and to the world from the failure to give such protection and care.
Bishop Corti used a novel approach in writing the meditations that had a strong impact on those present. He had Jesus speak in the first person at many of the stations, conveying his thoughts and feelings along the way to Calvary. Sometimes, however, Jesus used the first person plural whenever he engaged with people. Each meditation concluded by making a connection between the biblical texts and contemporary situations of human suffering and misery.
Thus, for example, when reflecting on Jesus arrest, he recalled how Peter, John and Paul were imprisoned too as have countless other “marvelous witnesses” to the faith throughout history down to the present day. He recalled how very many are persecuted because they are believers or because of their work for justice and peace, such as Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities, who died a martyr for the faith on 2 March 2011.
At the fourth station, when Jesus meets his mother, the meditation made a link to the many dramatic family situations in the world today; and concluded with a prayer for next October’s synod on the family, so that the synod fathers “may be docile to the Holy Spirit and reach a valid discernment.”
The fifth station threw the spotlight on Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry his cross, and speaks of how Christians are called to help others carry their crosses today. The meditation at the sixth station recalled the role played by women in the life of Jesus, and in the Christian community ever since, and asked the Lord to protect them.
When at the tenth station Jesus is stripped of his garments and humiliated, the meditation linked this to the “terrible situations” in our world today, especially in relation to children, such as “human trafficking, the condition of child soldiers, modern slave labor, children and adolescents robbed of their very selves, wounded in their intimacy, barbarically profaned”.
Jesus is crucified at the eleventh station, and here a connection is made to those who face the death penalty and torture. And the question is asked: “When will the death penalty, which is practiced in numerous States, be abolished? When will every form of torture and the violent suppression of innocent people be eliminated?”
The death of Jesus on the Cross, at the twelfth station, is accompanied by the prayer of St Ambrose that says, “Christ is everything for us”. He is “necessary” so that we may know “our being and our destiny”, and to enable us to find “the true reasons for fraternity among people” and “the foundations” of justice and peace. He is necessary “so that we can learn true love”.
Throughout the ceremony the cross was carried by different people, chosen to represent different contemporary realities. The Pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome carried it, as did a family, some religious women, representatives of the Custodian of the Holy Land, and persons from some of the countries where Christians are suffering persecution (Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, and China).
Earlier that day, Pope Francis presided over the solemn liturgy in St Peter’s Basilica that commemorated the Passion and death of Jesus, during which Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa delivered a powerful homily on the persecution of Christians today, while the world remains silent. (http://www.americamagazine.org/content/dispatches/cantalamessa-christians-are-being-killed-many-countries-and-world-silen)