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Ricardo da Silva, S.J.August 04, 2023
Australian World Youth Day pilgrims pray during Mass at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima in Lisbon, Portugal, July 31, 2023. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

When the Jesuits in Portugal were entrusted with planning the Way of the Cross—one of the key moments of prayer at any World Youth Day, where young people join in prayer with Pope Francis to contemplate the final hours of the life of Jesus Christ—they knew it needed to be quite different from any previous prayer service. Not because they wanted to outshine what had happened before but because, by the time they started planning, Pope Francis had called the worldwide Catholic Church to embark upon the Synod on Synodality, a years-long process of deep listening and spiritual conversations between its members at all levels and across all ages.

“It has been very moving to contemplate this moment, in which we truly worked to help everyone pray and plunge into what are, in some way, our weaknesses,” João Goulão, S.J., a Portuguese Jesuit who is the director of CUPAV, a pastoral center for university students in Lisbon, said. Through the stages of Christ’s own passion, he said, in an exclusive interview with America and PontoSJ—the online journal of the Jesuits in Portugal—we can understand “the frailties of youth and how Jesus, the experience of faith, can enlighten and truly bring strength and encouragement.”

While Father Goulão had years of experience ministering to young people, he did not want to presume to know their hearts and minds. He knew that if the Way of the Cross was to hold credibility and play a transformative role in the lives of possibly millions of young people who would gather in central Lisbon two years later to pray with Pope Francis, it was “fundamental” to actively enlist their help, he said. “So we carried out a worldwide consultation into the concerns of young people.”

When the Jesuits in Portugal were entrusted with planning the Way of the Cross, they knew it needed to be quite different from any previous prayer service. 

The consultation was carried out with the help of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity and Family Life. “We listened to the most significant concerns, frailties and wounds of young people from five continents,” Father Goulão said. “And this formed and entered the text that we will later pray on the Way of the Cross.”

The “frailties” that were identified by young people around the world and incorporated into the prayer included mental health, loneliness, violence and fear, the environment, the dignity of work and workers, youth unemployment, the dangerous illusions of social media, and abusive and addictive tendencies and behaviors of all stripes.

“The underlying theme is vulnerability; that is, the fragility that we all deal with on a daily basis,” Father Goulão said. While the stations of the cross contemplate “the fragility and wounds that we all go through in our daily lives, the fragility of the church, the fragility of society, in short, in some way, touching the limits that we all cross in existence,” he added. It is also about “realizing how the experience of faith can enlighten…and can give some meaning and some hope to what we all experience.”

But they felt a key element was still missing. Young people would not be captivated to accompany the pope in over 90 minutes of prayer by a poetic text alone—even one that was constructed with their deepest worries in mind. They believed there needed to be many more moving parts and aesthetic elements. Matilde Trocado, a respected theater director who was appointed a leader in the pastoral and artistic team that would bring to life the main World Youth Day events, was given the unenviable task of translating the concept and the words drafted by the Jesuits into riveting on-stage action, all the while maintaining the prayerful and contemplative nature proper to the moment.

It was important to Ms. Trocado that the performers chosen to form Ensemble23—a group of 50 young people chosen to enact each station—were representative of the diversity of nations and life experiences shared by many of the young people who attend World Youth Day.

“[The] weaknesses mirrored in these situations [in the prayer] concerned everyone—from the most to the least European,” she said in an interview with America. “Everyone in the cast saw themselves in them.” In addition to the cast, there were hundreds of young people in the supporting choir and orchestra and working backstage. 

“There are 22 countries on that stage,” she said. “Many of them study arts; they are in performing arts school, etc., but they are not professionals; they are kids.” Added to the visual spectacle of dance and theatrical performance, would be personal testimonies of young people throughout the world and the live orchestra and choir, including a Portuguese sign language choir, to ensure maximum participation. The soundtrack will include Gregorian and Taizé chant, and polyphony associated with the church’s longstanding and respected traditions, but also rap, hip hop, pounding drums and pop.

In the Christian tradition, the Way of the Cross is traditionally divided into 14 stations; “14 moments in which we accompany Jesus from his condemnation to his death, the so-called Passion,” said Father Goulão. It was important to the artistic team that this tradition be kept and at the same time that there would be elements that would be new and surprising.

“I would say that the Way of the Cross is the most disruptive, or maybe the most unexpected [part of the main events at World Youth Day]. It’s a bit risky,” Ms. Trocado said of the concept her team devised for the construction of the stage and the movement and choreography that will accompany the text. “Either it goes very well or very badly,” she added, “It is risky in that sense.”

The artistic team ultimately settled on an idea. While they maintained the traditional cross and the number of stations, they decided to change the way pilgrims would follow the cross from one station to another.

It is customary during the stations of the cross, usually prayed on Fridays in Lent, that those praying accompany Jesus as he carries his cross through the different stages of his Passion. “In the experience of the Way of the Cross it is very important to accompany; that everyone accompanies the movement of the cross, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, there is a sober image that marks the place of the stations,” Father Goulão said. “We tried to look for an experience that would be immersive, disruptive and would involve everyone; everyone, in some way that they could see and hear.”

But the logistics of moving half-a-million-people through ancient cobblestone roads is no mean feat, especially considering the people of all ages and abilities that wanted to take part, in person, in this pivotal moment of prayer with the pope. This World Youth Day has worked hard to include people from all walks of life, in keeping with the resounding call that Pope Francis has repeatedly called on pilgrims to chant. “In the church there is room for everyone,” the pope told half-a-million pilgrims who gathered to welcome him to Lisbon on Thursday, Aug. 5. “Repeat after me, he said. “Everyone! Everyone! Everyone! I can’t hear you. Again: everyone! Everyone! Everyone!”

Way of the Cross structure at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal (Photo by author)
Way of the Cross structure at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal (Photo by author)

The artistic team ultimately settled on an idea. While they maintained the traditional cross and the number of stations, they decided to change the way pilgrims would follow the cross from one station to another. Stage builders embarked on constructing a blue wall of towers, honoring a color typical of Portugal.

Each tower on the stage is of a different height; representing a towering metropolitan cityscape. The tallest tower reaches 82 feet, to which the cross will rise. “That’s why it was important for them not to have great fears of heights,” Ms. Trocado said of the ensemble chosen to depict each station. As the cross climbs and falls, artistic panels adorn the front panel of each tower, mimicking the station being prayed.

Father Goulão invited another Jesuit priest, Nuno Branco, S.J., a sketch artist with whom he worked with at CUPAV in Lisbon, to envisage the appropriate art that would form the backdrop upon which the cross would travel. Father Goulão said that the idea behind Father Branco’s art, largely line art, is “that it will give us a little bit of this sense of how God becomes present in our humanity. How it is confusing and there is no clear dividing line,” he explained. “The shapes are not very figurative, there is no detailed representation. All of this will lead us through a great aesthetic experience as well.... I have absolutely no doubt that this is going to be, for the young people, a truly moving experience, an experience of faith.”

[Read Pope Francis’ homily for the Way of the Cross.]

This article has been updated.

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