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ROME – Pope Francis on Friday called on Christ to “bring adversaries to shake hands” and to disarm the hand “raised by brother against brother.” He underlined the point during the Via Crucis by inviting two women, one Ukrainian and one Russian, to carry the cross together during the station recalling Christ’s death.
“Hold us by the hand, like a Father, so that we do not stray from You,” Francis said in a prayer addressed to God. “Convert our rebellious hearts to Your heart, so that we may learn to follow projects of peace; bring adversaries to shake hands, so that they may taste mutual forgiveness; disarm the hand raised by brother against brother, so that where there is hatred, concord may flourish.”
The pope’s words came as he led the traditional Via Crucis in Rome’s Coliseum for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The prayer also called for the “merciful Father” to “help us to strip ourselves of the old man corrupted by deceitful passions, and clothe us with the new man, created according to justice and holiness.”
Though the Way of the Cross is a 14-station meditation on Jesus’ Passion, the attention of many was on the 13th station, when a Ukrainian and a Russian woman carried the cross together, despite an uproar by many Ukrainians.
The prepared meditations were changed, according to the Vatican’s press office, “limiting the text to the minimum to rely on silence and prayer.”
“In the face of death, silence is more eloquent than words,” said the version read on Friday. “Let us therefore stand in prayerful silence, and let each one in their heart pray for peace in the world.”
The two women have been living in Italy for about 20 years and are currently working together in the palliative care department of Rome’s Campus Biomedico.
At the end of the Via Crucis, Pope Francis read a prayer he had penned for the occasion.
An estimated 10,000 people took part in the prayer, which was held both inside the Coliseum, and the area surrounding it. In 2020 and 2021 the event took place in a deserted St. Peter’s Square because of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When the Vatican announced that both Ukrainians and Russians would help carry the cross in the station commemorating Christ’s death on the cross, some Ukrainians, both at a civil and at an ecclesial level, objected.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, said the country was “concerned” over the decision, and both Latin and Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops voiced their disappointment at the Vatican’s decision, with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk saying that it was “offensive.”
Even the Vatican’s own ambassador to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulkobas voiced some wariness, saying that it should not be read with a political lens. He also acknowledged that “reconciliation must come when aggression is stopped.”
Protesting the decision, several Ukrainian Catholic online outlets- including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the local edition of EWTN- chose not to do a live transmission of the prayer, as they have traditionally done.
The full set of 14 meditations was released by the Vatican on Monday. Each of the meditations were written by families in different situations: a young married couple, an elderly couple without children, a family that has lost a child, one marred by war, and a family of migrants.
The families are linked to Catholic volunteer associations and communities, and the theme was chosen to mark the fifth anniversary of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation following the 2014-2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family.
The Way of the Cross is divided into 14 stations that revisit the central moments of Christ’s passion, from the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to his burial. Each station includes a passage of the Gospel, a short reflection, an intention, and a prayer.
On Saturday evening, Pope Francis will lead the Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica, and then on Sunday, the Easter Mass in the square before delivering his traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing, thus capping the holiest week of the year for the Latin-Rite Catholics.