Half-a-million young people from 187 countries participated in a colorful, emotional and deeply spiritual celebration of the Way of the Cross at World Youth Day in Krakow this Friday evening, which highlighted concrete ways in which mercy can be exercised in the 21st century.
They used the traditional Way of the Cross to do this, with each of the 14 stations depicting one of the 14 works of mercy: seven corporal and seven spiritual. Young people carried a wooden cross—the Cross of World Youth Day, given to them many years ago by John Paul II, which has been carried all over the world.
With the support of a talented men and women’s choir supported by an orchestra, and a highly creative use of film, video, dance, art and gymnastic artistry, they presented examples of how these works of mercy are put into practice by several groups in Poland and some other countries.
They involved in this spectacular presentation several Polish groups, like those involved in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the terminally ill and providing a “domestic hospital.” They also engaged international communities such as Sant’ Egidio and L’Arche (founded by Jean Vanier), together with the Sisters of Mercy founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an icon of mercy whom Francis will canonize on Sept.4
The Community of Sant'Egidio, for example, presented the first station and involved young people from their communities in Italy, Argentina, Ukraine and Pakistan, together with refugees from Syria and two Poles who until recently were living on the streets. The Sisters of Mother Teresa, for their part, carried the cross, presented a video of their work in mission lands and read a prayer.
The pope followed this rich and moving celebration, and when it ended, he delivered a homily that focused on those same 14 works of mercy.
He began by recalling the words of Jesus as reported in St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, which tell us that Jesus himself identifies with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner.
He told them that these words of Jesus answer the question that arises so often in our minds and hearts: “Where is God?” Though he did not say so, it is also the question that has often been raised in relation to what happened in Auschwitz, which he visited earlier today.
His words suggest he may have had this too in mind when he said we often ask, “Where is God, if evil is present in our world, if there are men and women who are hungry and thirsty, homeless, exiles and refugees? Where is God, when innocent persons die as a result of violence, terrorism and war?”
The Jesuit pope did not stop there, he went onto list other questions that arise in people’s minds such as: “Where is God, when cruel diseases break the bonds of life and affection? Or when children are exploited and demeaned, and they, too, suffer from grave illness? Where is God, amid the anguish of those who doubt and are troubled in spirit?”
Before coming here to Blonia Park in Krakow this evening, Francis had visited seriously ill children and their parents at the city’s Children’s University Hospital, and he may have had these people in mind, too, as he spoke.
Speaking from the heart, he told W.Y.D. participants that such questions are ones “that humanly speaking have no answer. We can only look to Jesus and ask him.” But he added, “Jesus’ answer is this: ‘God is in them.’ Jesus is in them; he suffers in them and deeply identifies with each of them.”
Pope Francis reminded them that “Jesus himself chose to identify with these our brothers and sisters enduring pain and anguish by agreeing to tread the ‘way of sorrows’ that led to Calvary.” Indeed, “by embracing the wood of the cross, Jesus embraced the nakedness, the hunger and thirst, the loneliness, pain and death of men and women of all times.”
At this point, to strong applause, he greeted refugees from the war in Syria who are participating in W.Y.D.
Speaking in front of a giant portrait of the Divine Mercy, surrounded by cardinals and bishops, he told them:
By following Jesus along the Way of the Cross, we have once again realized the importance of imitating him through the 14 works of mercy. These help us to be open to God’s mercy, to implore the grace to appreciate that without mercy we can do nothing; without mercy, neither I nor you nor any of us can do a thing.
After elaborating a little on what each work of mercy means, Francis told those in the park:
Humanity today needs men and women, and especially young people like yourselves, who do not wish to live their lives ‘halfway,’ young people ready to spend their lives freely in service to those of their brothers and sisters who are poorest and most vulnerable, in imitation of Christ who gave himself completely for our salvation.
In the face of evil, suffering and sin in the world, Francis said, “The only response possible for a disciple of Jesus is the gift of self, even of one’s own life, in imitation of Christ; it is the attitude of service.”
He drew applause again when he told them that “in welcoming the outcast who suffer physically and welcoming sinners who suffer spiritually, our credibility as Christians is at stake.”
Speaking frankly, he told them, “Unless those who call themselves Christians live to serve, their lives serve no good purpose. By their lives, they deny Jesus Christ.”
Addressing them as “dear friends,” he declared: “This evening the Lord once more asks you to be in the forefront of serving others. He wants to make of you a concrete response to the needs and sufferings of humanity. He wants you to be signs of his merciful love for our time!”
To carry out this mission, he said: “Jesus shows you the way of personal commitment and self-sacrifice. It is the Way of the Cross.” It is “the way of fidelity in following Jesus to the end, in the often dramatic situations of everyday life.” It is a way “that fears no lack of success, ostracism or solitude, because it fills ours hearts with the fullness of Jesus.”
Indeed, it is “the way of God’s own life, his ‘style’ which Jesus brings even to the pathways of a society at times divided, unjust and corrupt.”
Francis concluded by telling them that the Way of the Cross “is not a sadomasochistic way; it is the way that alone defeats sin, evil and death, for it leads to the radiant light of Christ’s resurrection and opens the horizons of a new and fuller life. It is the way of hope, the way of the future. Those who take up this way with generosity and faith give hope and a future to humanity.”