ROME – Good Friday’s meditations in the Vatican this year were centered around what Pope Francis has often described as the outcasts of this world – reminding the poor, immigrants and victims of human trafficking that the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection was for them.
Against the backdrop of Rome’s Coliseum, illuminated by a full moon and thousands of candles, Francis delivered a short prayer at the end of the Way of the Cross, asking Jesus to allow those who follow him to see in Christ’s cross all the crosses in the world today.
He listed several crosses, such as those carried by “people who hunger for bread and love;” people who’ve been abandoned even by their own children; those who have no justice nor peace; the earth, “that seriously withers under our egoistic eyes blinded by greed and power.”
He also listed the crosses of “people who don’t have the comfort of the faith” and “small children wounded in their innocence and their purity,” perhaps a reference to the clerical sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.
Francis prayed too, that Christians can see in Jesus’ cross that of the Church, “your wife, that feels continuously attacked from the inside and the outside.”
Beginning shortly after 9:00 p.m. Rome time, Francis presided over the traditional Way of the Cross procession on Friday, recalling the path of Christ to his crucifixion.
Pope Benedict XIV, who died in 1759, was the first to head the meditations of the Way of the Cross in the Coliseum, a building that that is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome where tradition holds the blood of martyred Christians was shed.
The modern Way of the Cross goes back to Pope Paul VI, and it has been a yearly appointment since then, attracting thousands of pilgrims. During the first years of his pontificate, St. John Paul II used to carry the Cross himself, and it rapidly became a worldwide television event.
Each year, popes choose the person who writes the meditations for the fourteen stations.
This time, Francis entrusted them to Italian Sister Eugenia Bonetti, an 80-year-old nun who has dedicated much of her life’s work to rescuing women from human trafficking and sex slavery. The meditations were centered on this issue, one that is close to the pontiff’s heart and which affects an estimated 30 million people worldwide.
Right from the introduction, Bonetti’s meditations were in line with her life’s work, saying that those gathered in the Coliseum want to “walk this via dolorosa in union with the poor, the outcast of our societies and all those who even now are enduring crucifixion as victims of our narrowmindedness, our institutions and our laws, our blindness and selfishness, but especially our indifference and hardness of heart.”
Christians too, she wrote, suffer from the diseases of indifference and hardness of heart.
“May the Cross of Christ, a means of death but also of new life, embracing heaven and earth, north and south, east and west, enlighten the consciences of citizens, of the Church, of lawmakers and of all those who call themselves followers of Christ, so that the Good News of our redemption may be made known to all,” Bonetti wrote.
In the second station, “Jesus takes up his Cross,” the religious sister said that it’s easy for a person to wear a crucifix around one’s neck or to use it as decoration in cathedrals and homes. However, she wrote, it’s “less easy” to encounter “today’s newly crucified,” referring to the poor, the homeless, “young people deprived of hope,” immigrants living in slums “at the fringe of our society after having endured untold suffering.”
The meditations also included concrete experiences of people who today are carrying their cross, as that of three young African girls who, as they were trying to find warm next to a make-shift fire in the outskirts of Rome had flammable material thrown at them this January.
“How much time will it take for those young women to be healed not only of their painful burns, but also of the pain and humiliation of finding their bodies mutilated and disfigured forever?” Bonetti wrote in the meditation for the third station.
In the fourth station, Jesus meets his mother, the sister spoke of Tina, a young woman who was twenty years old when she was “brutally killed on the street,” leaving behind a baby.
“Lord, have mercy on the many, all too many, mothers who have allowed their young children to depart for Europe in the hope of helping their poverty-stricken families, only to meet with humiliation, contempt and at times even death,” Bonetti wrote.
The sixth was dedicated to all the children who today can’t go to school, instead being exploited in minds, fields and fisheries, “bought and sold by human traffickers for organ harvesting, used and abused on our streets by many, including Christians.”
Later, she writes: “Lord, how many times have you asked us this disturbing question: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?”
“How many times have you reminded us that their heartbreaking cry rises up to you? Help us to share the sufferings of all those treated as refuse,” Bonetti wrote in the ninth station. “It is all too easy to condemn people and difficult situations that offend our false sense of decency. It is less easy to accept our responsibilities as individuals, as governments, and as Christian communities.”
Earlier in the day, Francis participated in the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica. Good Friday is among the rare occasions when the pope celebrates a liturgy but does not deliver a homily. Instead, the preacher of the papal household, Father Rainero Cantalamessa, does so.
The Capuchin priest began his homily saying that on the occasion he wanted to contemplate on Christ in the cross as “the prototype” of all those who are rejected in the world today, “the discarded of the earth, those from whom we turn aside our faces so as not to see them.”
On the cross, Cantalamessa said, Jesus becomes the symbol of those who today are humiliated and insulted: “You who are rejected, spurned, pariahs of the whole earth: the greatest man in history was one of you! Whatever nation, race, or religion you belong to, you have the right to claim him as yours.”
Religions, Cantalamessa said, are called to work together to promote peace but also to speak up against the fact that a “few privileged people” possess more wealth that they could ever go through, while millions live without a piece of bread or water to give to their children.
“No religion can remain indifferent to this because the God of all the religions is not indifferent to all of this,” the preacher of the papal household said.
Holy Week is the most solemn period of the year for Christians around the world. It began with Palm Sunday, which Francis celebrated in St. Peter’s Square. On Thursday, he presided over the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a prison in the outskirts of Rome. On Saturday, the pope will celebrate the Easter Vigil Mass, and on Sunday he’ll celebrate an open-air Mass in St. Peter’s Square.